New vaccine program faces dilemma: No Winn-Dixie, Walmart, Publix in some FL counties, sidelining residents

Winn-Dixie storefront shot by Ryan Ketterman, July 24, 2018, Southeastern Grocers. Wikimedia Commons.

A new federal-state vaccine program has already hit roadblocks: The new vaccine sites for residents are stationed at Winn-Dixie, Walmart and Publix  locations with pharmacies, but several counties have none of those stores, the Florida Phoenix found.

And a handful of counties that have such stores, somehow aren’t participating in the new program.

It’s a dilemma that can shortchange hundreds of residents who can’t access the vaccine program because their counties don’t have the big-box Walmart stores that have everything, and the well-known Publix and Winn-Dixie grocery stores that have pharmacies.

While the initiative hopes to expand access to vaccines through private retailers, some communities are left on the sidelines, in some cases showing the haves and have nots across Florida counties.

“We don’t have Walmart, or a Winn-Dixie or any of those pharmacies,” said Marisa Shivers, the emergency management chief in Glades County, south central Florida west of Lake Okeechobee.

When it comes to vaccinating residents, Glades has one of lowest track record in the state. Only 5.6 percent of residents in the county have gotten the shots. That’s based on an analysis on Tuesday by the Phoenix, which looks at the U.S. Census population of each county compared to the number of residents vaccinated there.

The Florida Department of Health tracks the number of people who have been vaccinated, by county.

A vaccine program with Winn-Dixie, Walmart and Publix could benefit Glades, but the stores aren’t there.

Shivers said that the county’s vaccination efforts rely on the local health department rather than retailers. She said the county is now able to receive 500 doses of COVID vaccine weekly — which helps.

But not all counties will have that extra help.

Gilchrist County is in a similar boat — no Walmart or Sam’s Club, Publix, or Winn-Dixie locations.

Bobby Crosby, Gilchrist county administrator, told the Phoenix that because their county has a low population, their own local health department is able to distribute vaccines without these retailers.

Overall, about 8.6 percent of residents in that county have been vaccinated. That’s just below the average of 9.28 percent statewide, for the number of residents vaccinated compared to the county population, according to the Phoenix analysis.

In contrast, Sumter County, home of the The Villages retirement community, 17.7 percent of residents have gotten the shots, the highest percent of all 67 counties. Sumter has all three venues — Walmart, Winn-Dixie and Publix.

The initiative announced by Gov. Ron DeSantis is a Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, under the Biden administration, to collaborate with the federal and state governments and retail partners.

A news conference with the governor on Tuesday didn’t have every detail. But the more specific information came in a press release, which revealed that not all counties would be able to participate.

The Phoenix found that 15 counties were excluded entirely from a list of locations that will not receive new COVID vaccination sites, mostly in North Florida.

These counties are: Calhoun, Dixie, Franklin, Gilchrist, Glades, Gulf, Hamilton, Holmes, Jefferson, Lafayette, Levy, Liberty, Taylor, Union, and Washington.

In that group, at least ten of the counties — Glades, Dixie, Union, Gilchrist, Hamilton, Liberty, Lafayette, Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf  — don’t have a Winn-Dixie, Publix, or Walmart or Sam’s Club.

Four other counties have at least one of the stores: Jefferson, Taylor, Levy and Washington.

The Phoenix has been unable confirm the status of Holmes County as of Wednesday.

Jefferson County has a Winn-Dixie pharmacy, but it isn’t listed as participating in the federal-state program. Likewise, Taylor County has a Walmart and a Winn-Dixie, but it also isn’t listed in the new vaccine program.

The Phoenix asked the Florida Department Health why some counties aren’t part of the new program, but it has not responded yet.

The retailers in the new vaccine program also include Harveys Supermarkets and Fresco y Más stores, of the Southeastern Grocers that include Winn-Dixie. Walmart also includes Sam’s Club stores. According to the press release, the sites were selected based on a number of factors.

DeSantis, at the Tuesday press conference, said that locations like Walmart have “a really significant footprint all across the state of Florida.”

As it turned out, not all of Florida.

So how can the new vaccine sites reach these communities if their counties do not have those venues or aren’t participating in the new program?

The Phoenix found that some of the 15 counties have well above-average vaccination track records.

Gulf and Franklin counties, for example, have about 15 percent of residents vaccinated compared to their county populations, according to the Phoenix analysis.

But Union and Dixie have low percentages — less than 7 percent.

Calhoun is at about 11 percent, above the state average.

Jefferson County was not on the list of retailers for the federal-state vaccine program, but it does have a Winn-Dixie with a pharmacy in Monticello.

When the Phoenix reached out to the pharmacy, a pharmacist said that the Monticello location would be providing vaccines at some point, but they do not know when.

Instead, Jefferson County has been distributing vaccines through the local health department and one private physician office, according to Pam Beck, public information officer for the Jefferson County Department of Health.

And so far that’s working for them.

About 14 percent of Jefferson County residents have been vaccinated, compared to the county population, according to the Phoenix analysis.

Beck said that their vaccination effort depends on how many vaccines the county receives.

“Our process squarely rests on the amount of vaccines we get on a weekly basis. We try our best to spend our entire weekly allocation when we get it,” Beck said. “When they give us 500 vaccines, we schedule 500 people.”

Martine Young, public information officer and operations manager at the local health department in Taylor County said that the county has both a Walmart and a Winn-Dixie that could help with vaccination efforts if the state expanded to these locations.

“We’re doing the best we can,” she told the Phoenix. “But we’re a small county.”

A pharmacist at the Winn-Dixie in Taylor County said that their location might be offering COVID vaccines in about a month’s time, but that’s not for certain.

A Walmart pharmacist said that they had no clue when the Taylor County location would function as a COVID vaccination site.

As for the counties that will participate in the new program, the focus will still be on residents who are 65 and older, and frontline health workers.

“We will move on when we have done right by the seniors,” DeSantis said at the Tuesday press conference.

DeSantis says that he has been  “working with the Feds for about a month” on the program, though he did not mention the Biden administration by name.

If you would like to see a retail pharmacy is providing COVID vaccines in your area, you can find out at Publix, Walmart, Sam’s Club, and Winn-Dixie websites. 

Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.
Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.