Task force ramps up message to get more people vaccinated

Rev. RB Holmes, founder of the Statewide Coronavirus Vaccination Community Education and Engagement Task Force, calls the recent coronavirus surge “troubling and challenging.”
Photo by St. Clair Murraine

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

Convinced that vaccination is the best weapon against a recent surge of the coronavirus, a grassroots group is ramping up its effort to counter the anti-vaccination rhetoric.

During a virtual meeting last Wednesday, the Statewide Coronavirus Vaccination Community Education and Engagement Task Force said it’s stepping up attempts to reach people who are refusing to be vaccinated. During the meeting a young man spoke about losing his father to the virus before he could be vaccinated, demonstrating the urgency for getting the shot.

In Tallahassee the group is holding events – some virtual and others in person — to advocate taking the vaccine. Members of the group in Jacksonville and Pensacola are offering incentives to help overcome hesitancy. 

The latest data from the Florida Department of Health shows that 60 percent of the state’s population has been vaccinated. The vaccinated population in Leon County is just over 50 percent as of last week.

Both Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare and Capital Regional Medical Center are taking measures to cope with the rising number of cases in Leon County. TMH also announced that it had reopened its COVID Unit.

The recent surge in COVID-19 cases is being attributed to the Delta variant of the coronavirus. Many of the victims continue to be from communities with a history of health disparities, which inspired the group’s goal of attaining a 70 percent herd immunity among Blacks.

Rev. RB Holmes, chairman and founder of the task force, called the recent surge astounding.

“The vaccination rates show that even as the federal and state governments have spent substantial dollars on making COVID-19 vaccines available, the campaign has fallen short and this vicious virus is spreading at a dangerous pace,” said Holmes. “The numbers in Black and brown communities are very low, troubling and challenging. The task force’s efforts are needed now more than ever.”

While continuing to call churches and HBCUs trusted venues for offering the vaccine, Holmes suggested that a change of strategy might help get more people vaccinated and quell the latest surge of coronavirus cases.

“Somebody said the definition of madness is doing the same thing the same way over again and expecting a miraculous outcome,” said Holmes, pastor at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. “It doesn’t work that way. We, as pastors, leaders and bishops, must be the ones advocating for our people.”

“Refreshing the message,” could be an effective way to help reduce the cases of vaccine hesitancy, said Ron Sachs, CEO of Sachs Media. He has been driving a “Safe and Healthy Big Bend” campaign for the task force.

“We believe there is a need to extend this campaign and freshen up the messaging, particularly with the Delta variant that’s really aggressive,” Sachs said. “It’s not unusual that most of the people that are getting sick, hospitalized or dying are unvaccinated.”

Former mayor of Jacksonville, Alvin Brown, told the group that incentives have proven to be an effective way of reaching people who aren’t vaccinated.

“There is no question that we have a problem,” said Brown. “This is a serious issue that we have to deal with the Delta variant.”

The recent surge in cases that has led to increased hospitalizations has prompted TMH to stop accepting new elective surgery cases that require an inpatient bed stay, according to a statement from Stephanie Derzypolski, VP/ Chief Communications Officer at TMH. She also appealed to the public to get vaccinated.

“COVID-19 vaccines continue to be the best tool to protect people from getting COVID-19 or becoming severely ill from the virus, including reducing the risk of hospitalization and death,” Derzypolski said.

The message was the same from Rachel Stiles, spokesperson for Capital Regional Medical Center.

“We are well-positioned to continue providing the variety of healthcare services our community needs, as we have done throughout the pandemic,” she said. “We cannot stress enough the importance of becoming vaccinated.”

Teenagers and millennials are among the demographics with the lowest vaccination rate in Florida. Only 18.9 percent of those ages 12-19 are vaccinated. The 30-39 age bracket has a vaccination rate of 19.5.

Those numbers aren’t lost on Jaland Johnson, a co-chair of the Teen Task Force.

“I’ve really been trying to get my peers to come together as one and get the vaccine,” he said. “We all know that at the end of the day it’s not just for us, it’s for the people around us; people we might see. Grandparents, aunties and uncles.”

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