Mayor says The Movement 'failed' to increase vaccination rates in Black community

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Jul. 24—During a meeting this week to discuss how the VProject campaign is going, Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz criticized the "failed effort" of community organization The Movement to increase Lucas County's vaccination rate, especially among communities of color.

Just over 28 percent of Lucas County's Black or African-American population has received the coronavirus vaccine, compared with the statewide rate of 32 percent, the Ohio Department of Health's dashboard shows.

"In terms of results, I don't know that The Movement has done very well," the mayor told VProject members and reporters Wednesday. "As we decide how we should be appropriating our resources going forward, we probably need to think about a different strategy for communities of color than what we have been using, because I think there's a lot of sizzle with The Movement and not a lot of steak, as they say.

"Before we would make the mistake of investing more in a failed effort, we'd want to rethink that," he said.

Tina Butts, who leads The Movement, called Friday for an apology, saying the mayor's comments disparaged the work of her team and the lives they saved by signing up residents for vaccination.

By her count, The Movement connected more than 4,000 residents to a shot before being asked in April to team with VProject to canvas door-to-door in ZIP codes with low uptake.

Since then, they've signed up another 4,100 residents, she said, not including another "three pages" of homebound residents they sent to the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department and new names added to the list each day while continuing their efforts independent from VProject.

"He don't owe me an apology, he owes our team an apology, because he has nothing to back it up," she said.

Mr. Kapszukiewicz did apologize Friday for the "kerfuffle," telling The Blade he mangled his words and didn't intend to insinuate that The Movement wasn't working hard; "they are working hard."

He also denied Ms. Butts' allegations that his criticism was politically motivated, after members of The Movement signed petitions for his challenger in the upcoming mayoral election, Carty Finkbeiner.

The election, Mr. Kapszukiewicz said, "is not even on my radar. I'm focused on making sure we can help the community get through this pandemic."

But he reiterated his concerns that Toledo isn't reaching a particularly vulnerable demographic.

"Not only are we behind the state average, but we're 50 percent below where we need to be," he said of the Black vaccination rate. "100 percent of my focus is, I just want to do better making sure the African-American community is getting vaccinated."

He could not provide specifics for which strategies he believes would be more effective, but said he is in touch with a representative from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and is open to new ideas.

"Clearly, what has been done thus far hasn't worked," said a statement from mayoral spokesman Ignazio Messina. "For the sake of the health and well-being of African-Americans in Toledo, we need to do better."

In Mid-March, just before The Movement partnered with VProject, the state's vaccination dashboard showed less than 10 percent of Lucas County's Black population and 7 percent of the Latinx population had been vaccinated, compared with 21 percent of white residents. As of Friday, those numbers were up to 28 percent, 34 percent, and 47 percent, respectively.

Ms. Butts argues she wasn't hired to target the Black population — "Those numbers are going to be low anywhere around the world" — but rather to focus on ZIP codes with low vaccine uptake. That progress is more telling, she said.

The Movement started its campaign in ZIP code 43607, around Scott Park, which had a vaccination rate of about 24 percent. As of Friday, numbers provided by the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department showed inoculations were up to 36 percent there.

The six ZIP codes with the lowest vaccination rates in the county all saw similar increases:

— 43605 in East Toledo increased from 18 percent to 29 percent.

— 43608 around Lagrange Street increased from 19 percent to 38 percent.

— 43609 in South Toledo increased from 19 percent to 31 percent.

— 43610 in the Olde Towne area increased from 21 percent to 33 percent.

— 43604 in Downtown Toledo increased from 23 percent to 37 percent.

The 43617 ZIP code, mainly in Sylvania and Springfield Townships, continued to have Lucas County's highest vaccination rate, rising from 53 percent in April to 65 percent in July.

Greg Braylock, who works for ProMedica and heads VProject's Minority Health Committee, said he's proud of the progress they've made.

"I think our community has thrown everything at this that we have," he said, thanking all supporters for striving for the "bold goal" of 70 percent vaccination.

Overall vaccination rates in Lucas and Wood counties have shown incremental increases the last three months.

When the door-to-door canvassing started, about 38 percent of Lucas County was vaccinated and 43 percent of Wood County was.

A month later, as Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine was announcing the Vax-a-Million lottery, rates had increased to 42 percent in Lucas County and 48 percent in Wood County.

Today, they stand at 48 percent and 53 percent, respectively.

That puts Lucas County's rate on par with the statewide average and just shy of VProject's overall goal of hitting 50 percent vaccination by the end of this month. VProject has set the added goal of getting Lucas and Wood counties to the 70 percent threshold needed to reach herd immunity by Jan. 1.

VProject founder Sean Savage said the organization will continue to strategize ways to increase vaccine access and push compliance among residents, especially now that officials are warning about the coronavirus Delta variant becoming a greater threat.

Dr. Joel Kammeyer, a University of Toledo infectious-disease specialist who spoke during the VProject meeting, said the state recently reported a 69.3 percent increase in coronavirus cases compared with the prior seven days. That's likely the result of the variant, he said, noting that it now accounts for about 83 percent of U.S. cases.

Only the vaccines can reverse that trend, he said.

He defended the work The Movement did to get even one resident vaccinated, saying "little victories are still victories." He counts every person who avoids the virus or is not hospitalized with serious disease as a success.

"It is profoundly rare to see vaccinated persons that have developed severe disease, and deaths are almost unheard of among the vaccinated patients," Dr. Kammeyer said.

Dr. Karl Fernandes with The Toledo Clinic agreed.

"Once they get into the hospital, and into the ICU especially, it's luck. It's really lucky if they're going to survive or not," Dr. Fernandes said. "The medications we use...by and large, they're ineffective compared to the prevention the vaccine offers us."

Following the mayor's comments during Wednesday meeting, Mr. Savage agreed that he also hoped the county would be further along with vaccinations by this point, but said this is why the organization was formed. They knew going in that vaccine hesitancy and resistance would be a challenge, but that doesn't negate the work that has been done.

"There's quite a bit to celebrate; there's quite a bit to feel good about," he told his team.

On Friday, he credited The Movement, the mayor, and every other person and organization that has been involved with VProject with keeping the needle moving forward.

"We all share in our success in helping Lucas and Wood County achieve a higher combined vaccination rate than the state average," he said, "and we still have more work to do."

First Published July 24, 2021, 3:44pm

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