Shatonya and Kevyn Bryant
June 17, 2021 at 4:49:32 PM
Shatonya Bryant and her husband Kevyn didn’t set out to become vaccine evangelists when they got their Covid-19 vaccines at the beginning of the year. Back then it seemed everyone was jockeying for the vaccine. The Bryants got theirs through Kevyn’s dad, who works at a mental health facility that at the time had “such a large stockpile, they were allowing family members to get vaccinated,” recalls Kevyn, 33, a digital marketer.
But that was six months ago. These days, vaccination rates are slowing, and Covid-19 case numbers are ticking back up. Nationally, 43 percent of Americans have gotten vaccinated. But, as the Washington Post noted recently, Covid-19 vaccine coverage is not evenly distributed; some states, some counties and even some neighborhoods have dramatically different coverage rates. Unsurprisingly, areas with high vaccination rates have fewer Covid-19 cases while areas with lower vaccination rates have more.
Here, in Orange County, 55 percent of eligible people 12 and older are vaccinated, according to the Florida Department of Health. But in communities of color, a certain wariness surrounds the vaccine. People worry it was developed too fast. They're not sure what the vaccine contains. They've seen some pretty crazy stuff online. And it's not as if the government established a lot of trust, what with the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, not to mention the widespread institutional racism that Black people have historically experienced with the healthcare system and still experience today. Only 21 percent of Florida's eligible Black people are vaccinated. Kent Donahue, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health Orange County, estimates that Orange County's numbers for Black residents are "similar," but says, providing "a number or a percentage is difficult because we are finding the demographic information is based on what individuals are willing to provide at the time of vaccination."
Even so, those numbers may be high. Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center puts Florida's overall vaccination rate at just 39 percent.
But that’s where the Bryants come in. If “a picture is worth a thousand words,” perhaps a giant billboard with a Black family promoting Covid-19 vaccines in a largely Black neighborhood is worth a thousand vaccinations. And that could help save a lot of lives.
The Bryants' billboard is part of Orange County’s “I Got My Shot” billboard campaign. Funded with $39,240 of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) money, the campaign includes 18 billboards strategically placed throughout the county in areas with low vaccine rates. It's an attempt to nudge reluctant residents to roll up their sleeves. The billboards went up June 7, and they’ll stay up through August 29. Three other families are participating, along with four churches and a slew of medical professionals.
“We said sure, absolutely, we’ll represent,” Shatonya, 32, a dance teacher at Maxey Elementary Visual & Performing Arts Magnet in Winter Garden. “It’s an important cause. There’s so much controversy around it.”
Kevyn laughs. “We’re from Alabama, and people there don’t believe in Covid-19 at all. I talk to friends and they’re like, That stuff ain’t real. That’s the government.”
Kevyn anad Shatonya know all too well how real Covid-19 is. Kevyn lost an aunt early in the pandemic. It's just one more reason they were eager to participate in the "I Got My Shot" Billboard Campaign.
Together with their daughters, Khloe, 3, and Kayleigh, 9, Shatonya and Kevyn posed for the portrait with Kevyn’s younger sister Summer and their parents, Melissa and Kevyn (both vaccinated). The family portrait is now plastered on billboards at the intersections of Pine Hills Road at Silver Star and Clarcona-Ocoee Road at Pine Hills Road. The billboards alert everyone who cruises past that free Covid-19 vaccines are available nearby. To find a location, visit ocfl.net/vaccine
With the new highly contagious Delta variant now making up 10 percent of new coronavirus cases within the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — up from 6 percent just a few days ago — raising vaccination rates has become even more urgent. Vaccines provide about 80 percent protection against the Delta variant after the second dose, according to the White House Covid-19 Response Team.
“We know the virus is changing in ways that make it more dangerous,” writes The Atlantic's Katherine J. Wu. “And so if you encounter the virus now, you’re encountering a more problematic pathogen.”
And that makes the Bryants’ decision to lend their family’s likeness to the vaccination cause all the more noteworthy.
“I just felt like this was something we could put our name on, put our stamp on. Showing our family will be really powerful to those who are apprehensive,” Kevyn explains.
"We’re a very tight-knit, ‘follow-the-leader’ culture,” he continues. The more we see other people do things, the more we’ll do it too. So if people see a Black family on a billboard, then they’ll feel like Oh, Black people are doing it.
“I’ve had a lot of people saying, I’m not getting it, I’m not getting it, I’m not getting it. Even my best friend’s wife was like, I ain’t getting it. Then a month later, because she knew our family had gotten vaccinated, she was like, Oh, I got it, I got it.”
It's a matter of education too, Kevyn adds. “I’ve known Black nurses who’ve told me, I’m not getting it. But I also know Black doctors who’ve said, Yes, you need to get it.”
Even Shatonya admits to a bit of early hesitancy. “I had to really pray and ask God to give me comfort and give me peace about getting it,” she says. “Then I had to do my own research to see what is in the vaccine and what it’s really doing to our bodies. Once I did the research, I felt better about getting it.”