ANNAPOLIS — Mayor Brandon Scott Thursday blasted Gov. Larry Hogan for what he called misinformation and a “Jedi mind trick” aimed at distracting focus from efforts to provide more equitable access to coronavirus vaccines in underserved minority communities.
The comments from the mayor in a hastily thrown together statement broadcast live on social media followed a news conference in which Hogan intended to focus on efforts to increase access in those communities. But a comment from the governor about transferring doses from the Baltimore City Health Department at the request of the city touched off another round of back-and-forth barbs between the second-term Republican and Scott, a first-term Democrat.
Scott categorically denied Hogan’s statements during a six-minute video in which no questioned were taken.
“It’s nothing but a distraction tactic, a Jedi mind trick to cover up the completely inequitable vaccine distribution process that we have,” Scott said of Hogan’s statements.
Facing mounting pressure that the state is not doing enough to reach Black and brown communities, Hogan Thursday announced additional measures to make access to coronavirus vaccinations more equitable.
During that meeting with reporters, Hogan discussed what the governor said was the city’s inability to use its vaccine allotments.
“At their request, we’ve transferred 30 times doses from the health department out to other providers because they weren’t utilizing them and we thought other providers could get them out into the community,” said Hogan. “The mayor apparently was not aware of that. He kept saying that they weren’t getting enough, and the health department kept saying we have way too much please send them somewhere else to help us. They were doing a good job working with us. It’s just that the mayor wasn’t up to speed.”
The governor also said the city had rejected nearly $9 million in pass-through funding from the federal government as reimbursement for vaccination efforts.
Both Scott and city Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said Hogan mischaracterized both issues.
“Baltimore City Health Department has never refused, or rejected or returned doses,” said the health commissioner.
Dzirasa said doses from the city were transferred to community providers as the city looked to expand its vaccination network and target vulnerable adults in the community, including senior citizens and the homeless. The city’s efforts were “encouraged by the state,” she said.
The move to private providers allowed residents to avoid registering on a troubled state registration website, she said.
“We knew from day one that vaccinating our residents would be a collaborative process. To hear this categorized as anything less than a successful partnership is incredibly disappointing to say the least,” said Dzirasa.
Scott said the city turned down the pass-through funding, which is capped, in order to directly apply for 100% reimbursement from the federal government.
Hogan’s latest spat with Scott comes on the heels of earlier comments in which the governor said the city had received more vaccine doses than it was initially entitled to get.
And the latest back-and-forth pulled attention away from the governor’s announcement of what he called a first in the nation effort to address vaccine access inequity, led by Maryland National Guard Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead, who is leading the state’s vaccine equity task force.
At the heart of Hogan’s new effort is a new program that relies on community groups to partner with the state to establish vaccination hubs.
“We also want to reach into those smaller pockets where, as the general’s plan is attempting to do, it’s a top-down and a bottom-up approach,” said Hogan. “We’re trying to do everything we possible can.”
The latest effort is in addition to some others in which the state has partnered with local churches in Baltimore city and Prince George’s County in recent weeks.
The plan spearheaded by Birckhead relies on, in part, local community groups requesting a vaccination hub from the state.
“It is really situation specific, and we are really intentional about working with the community not to stress anyone, to rush them through the process if they’re not capable or wanting to move that quickly,” said Birckhead.
Those requests will be filtered through the state vaccination task force, which will use census and other data to target underserved communities and find appropriate sites for clinics before receiving an approval from the Maryland Department of Health. Vaccination teams from the Maryland National Guard or local providers including chain pharmacies may be used to administer the doses.
Some recent clinics have provided as few as 50 doses. Birckhead said the community hubs will utilize redistributed doses from current allocations.
“My hope is that we get more vaccine, and then I can be 100% next week. That’s my hope,” said Birckhead. “We’re not getting any more vaccine (immediately) but as we get more vaccine we’ll be able to go to more places but the (amount) of vaccine is what we have.”
Still, criticism mounts as minority populations, which were disproportionately affected by the virus in terms of infections and deaths, are now vaccinated at lower rates.
In Prince George’s County, nearly 9% of the more than 900,000 people who live in the predominantly Black county have received one dose of the vaccine. Just 4% have completed a second round. Both are the lowest figures in the state.
Baltimore city is the next lowest at 12.9% of the population that has received one dose and 7.5% that has received two doses, according to Maryland Department of Health statistics released Thursday morning.
Hogan has in the past attributed the low vaccination rates to vaccine hesitancy within minority communities – an explanation that has been dismissed by others.
“I’m not going to respond to every political criticism. We’re just going to continue to do the best we can,” said Hogan, adding that much of the criticism stems from frustration over a lack of vaccines nationally.
Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks acknowledged the shortage of vaccines but said she’d like to see her county’s doses increased, particularly at the state’s Six Flags mass vaccination site. In recent weeks residents from Montgomery and Howard counties have received more doses than Prince George’s County residents at that site.
“There’s really no commentary that’s needed,” said Alsobrooks. “The numbers speak for themselves. When you’re in a jurisdiction and only 11% of people there have been able to enjoy that lifesaving resource, I think it says a lot.”
Alsobrooks called for the state to set aside 50% of all doses allocated to that site for residents of her county or set aside specific days just for Prince George’s residents. Currently, the county has over 118,000 people on a registry awaiting doses, Alsobrooks said.
“Unfortunately, the narrative has become that Black and brown people are vaccinated at lower rates because they don’t want the vaccine,” said Alsobrooks. “The truth of the matter is that while there are some in our community that have this concern … the main issue right now however is actually lack of access to vaccinations. It is not the hesitancy.”