Billye Gaymon of Florida getting the coronavirus vaccine (Graphic by Rebecca Russ/COURIER)
Billye Gaymon of Florida getting the coronavirus vaccine (Graphic by Rebecca Russ/COURIER)

Ahead of her 68th birthday, Billye Gaymon lined up to be vaccinated against COVID-19. She hopes more Black Americans do the same.

Billye Gaymon gave herself an unusual present for her 68th birthday last week. She waited all night in a Cape Coral parking lot to be among the first people in southwest Florida to get the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had outlined guidelines on the order of vaccine distribution: According to the guidance, healthcare personnel and residents of long-term care facilities should receive the drug first, followed by essential frontline workers and people age 75 and older, then people over 65, and those aged 16-64 who have underlying medical conditions, and other essential workers. 

Florida officials bypassed those guidelines, as did Texans. “The problem is people that are 73, 74 would be in the back of the line for a young 21-year-old worker who’s considered ‘essential.’ That doesn’t, I think, make sense,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a Dec. 23 press conference.

Florida’s order includes long-term care facility residents and staff, then people 65 years and older, and healthcare personnel with direct patient contact. Hospitals may also vaccinate patients who are highly vulnerable to COVID-19. 

Gaymon waited over eight hours and was still the 71st person in line. She was also one of the few Black people she saw ready to get the vaccine, at least the third day it was offered in the state.

“Out of 700 people, I saw maybe five to 10 of us,” she said. 

According to Florida’s Department of Health, as of midnight Jan. 4 only 14,837 Black people had received the vaccine, out of the 260,655 total. 

Gaymon herself was initially hesitant about the vaccine. She was worried about the speed with which it was developed and concerned by the amount of conspiracy theories and “fake news” that was circulating. However, she kept up a dialogue with her adult children, who shared information and encouragement. She was also concerned about her risk of exposure: In addition to being in a high-risk age demographic, a sunken chest birth defect puts pressure on her heart and lungs. 

“I saw it was being offered in my area and I said, I’m supposed to do this. I decided I had to be part of the solution and not the problem. We have to try to heal America and stop the spread,” she told COURIER.

Photo courtesy of Gaymon

Florida’s rollout initially saw some confusion, with a first-come, first-served policy leading to an overwhelming demand. According to Gaymon, some sites didn’t have portapotties or chairs for elderly residents, who waited long hours in lines. She herself slept in her car overnight and waited more than eight hours before receiving the dose. Gaymon waited until the third day of availability, and by that time organizers had some chairs, were handing out bottles of water, and had provided handwashing stations with soap and water. 

After receiving the vaccine, she’s sharing information about the vaccine and fielding questions from her neighbors on her condo community Facebook page. 

“I’m feeling confident now and I’m going to feel much safer when all this is over,“ Gaymon said. “I don’t have any regrets.”

Editor’s note: Billye Gaymon is the mother of Courier Newsroom Deputy Editor Regina Mahone. Mahone was not involved in the production of this piece.