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Florida’s JTA Retasks Public Buses as Mobile Vaccine Centers

The Jacksonville Transportation Authority has retrofitted two of its 40-foot buses as mobile vaccination centers, traveling to neighborhood churches and community gathering spots to administer the COVID-19 vaccine.

A uniformed person standing beside a parked bus with "Wellness on Wheels" painted on i's side.
The Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) has outfitted two of its buses as mobile vaccination centers.
Image Courtesy of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority
The COVID-19 vaccine is coming into Florida neighborhoods; and transit is bringing it. Buses from the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) are being used as mobile vaccination sites, traveling into communities in a program known as Wellness on Wheels

The project is a partnership among JTA, the Jacksonville Housing Authority and Agape Family Health, a nonprofit health center. 

“Through our partnership with Agape Family Health, the JTA’s Wellness on Wheels initiative is reaching our community’s most at-risk populations, including seniors and those who do not have the ability to travel to a local vaccination site,” said JTA CEO Nathaniel P. Ford Sr. 

Two buses have been retrofitted to serve as vaccination centers and travel to various locations like churches and community centers, while nurses from Agape administer the vaccines. JTA is supporting the operation by providing logistics, bus operators and transit operations staff.

The effort underscores a broader movement in transit to become more conscious of equity and step in to serve the community in — at times — unorthodox ways. During the height of the COVID-19 shutdowns and stay-at-home directives, a number of transit agencies sent out buses into neighborhoods to serve as free community Wi-Fi hot spots as school children transitioned to at-home virtual learning. More recently, many transit agencies are offering free rides to vaccination centers. 

“Our mission is to improve Northeast Florida’s economy, environment and quality of life by providing safe, reliable, efficient and sustainable multimodal transportation services and facilities,” said Ford. “This initiative speaks to our efforts to improve equity in our community through our public service.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshuffled the way cities approach mobility, the role of transit and a growing awareness around serving the most vulnerable residents, say industry and public-sector observers. 

“I do think there’s sort of a tendency to look at the mobility issues in 2021, and attribute them almost entirely to COVID-19. And of course, our lives have changed drastically over the last year. There’s no denying that,” said Jason Novsam, a senior associate at urban and transportation planning firm Nelson/Nygaard, during a recent discussion at an Urbanism Next conference. “But I also think, in a lot of cases, there are systemic issues that existed prior, and will continue to worsen, particularly regarding vulnerable populations.

“COVID-19 has revealed some of our pre-existing weaknesses of our typical transit services,” he added. 

Efforts like mobile wellness centers in Jacksonville are a response to these observations, and an example of how transit can serve larger missions, said Ford.

“The rollout has been tremendous,” he remarked.

It’s not just 40-foot buses being retrofitted for vaccination sites, either.

AYRO, which makes small, electric delivery vehicles, has introduced the Electric Vaccine Vehicle (EVV), designed to transport tests and vaccines to neighborhood doorsteps. The company is in talks with local, state and federal agencies to arrange possible partnerships, officials have said. 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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