Charlotte County to vaccinate ‘underserved’ communities following Kings Gate controversy

By Anna Bryson, Charlotte Sun Staff Writer, Feb 23, 2021 

Charlotte County Commissioners want to get COVID-19 vaccines to underserved communities particularly following outrage after Gov. Ron DeSantis gave 3,000 coveted COVID-19 vaccine doses to select groups including the high-end Kings Gate community.

“As we see these pop up sites at Kings Gate and these communities, I want to make sure that the communities that don’t live behind gates, and that are underserved or underprivileged are getting a proportionate share for their people that qualify,” said Commissioner Christopher Constance at a board meeting Tuesday. “…The people that are the most needy among us, that may not have the resources, with the scheduling and computers and things like that, I just want to make sure that we are targeting those folks.”

Kings Gate, where DeSantis visited two weeks ago to announce vaccines, is a gated Benderson Development community where politically-connected developer Pat Neal builds homes. Neal is a former state senator who’s still active in GOP politics. He has donated $135,000 to DeSantis’ political committee since 2018, according to Politico.

DeSantis has been making these vaccine trips since the vaccine was first offered in January, starting with The Villages retirement community in central Florida. Some of the trips have been to Republican strongholds, like Charlotte County, and others have been to rural areas that aren’t in short reach of Publix Pharmacy sites.

Joseph Pepe, head of the Charlotte County Department of Health, said that the local health department is using a “vulnerability index” to strategically refine the county’s responses for outreach as well as COVID-19 education in underserved communities.

The local health department is working on outreach to vulnerable communities, because of the barriers that many people face including lack of access to the internet to sign up for vaccines, and also language barriers.

“By partnering with faith-based groups early on, we asked the state to include us in that initiative” to reach underserved minority communities, said Commissioner Joe Tiseo.

On Sunday, 500 doses were administered at South County Regional Park in Punta Gorda as part of the state’s initiative.

“We know people that are lower income and lower education status, they don’t really have options for taking days off (from work),” Pepe said. “So they’re less likely to go and get tested and take time off, they kind of are used to working sick anyway. That becomes problematic from an infection control perspective.”

The county is working to get homeless people vaccinated, Pepe said, through working with the Homeless Coalition. There’s only about 100 homeless people in Charlotte County who are over 65 years old, according to Pepe, which is the current age limit that residents must be to get vaccinated (with some exceptions), per DeSantis’ executive order.

“The biggest challenge is, quite honestly, adoption — those folks wanting to get vaccinated,” Pepe said.

Charlotte County has been working with the Virginia B. Andes Volunteer Community Clinic, a free clinic that largely serves low income people, to vaccinate vulnerable populations.

There’s a “significant amount” of Charlotte County residents who are traveling to other parts of the state, some as far away as Palm Beach, to get vaccinated, Pepe said.

“So when the conversation comes up, ‘why are we allowing others into our county’, it’s because they’re allowing us into theirs,” Pepe said.

Charlotte County’s positivity rate is 3.75%, which is “great news,” Pepe said, considering the past holidays and Superbowl weekend.

Although vaccine shipments to Charlotte County were delayed last week, the county “didn’t miss a beat,” Pepe said. Vaccine appointments that were originally scheduled for Tuesday were rescheduled for the weekend.

There are 2,600 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine ready to be administered in Charlotte County, according to Pepe.

Image Credits: Charlotte County Health Chief Joe Pepe and state Rep. Michael Grant stand behind Gov. Ron DeSantis at a pop-up vaccine drive at Kings Gate retirement community / BETSY CALVERT