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Community Groups Use Campaign Strategies To Promote Vaccines

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Massachusetts has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country according to the CDC, but like most places, racial, ethnic and income disparities do still exist. As Saraya Wintersmith from member station GBH reports, organizers with one campaign are working between medicine and politics to fill those gaps.

MELANIE ALBA: Hi. Have you had a chance to be vaccinated?

SARAYA WINTERSMITH, BYLINE: It's a weeknight, and organizer Melanie Alba is canvassing Boston's Mattapan neighborhood. But the group get out the vaccine. Normally, she'd be working to get out the vote, approaching people about a political campaign. For the last several months, though, she's been using political outreach tactics to increase vaccinations in hard-to-reach communities.

ALBA: This work is similar in a lot of ways. You know, we're calling. We're knocking doors, training volunteers on how to talk to folks who have questions.

WINTERSMITH: Alba's group is one of several organizing pop-up clinics to deliver vaccines in local neighborhoods, rather than at the mass vaccination sites scattered around the state. Today, they're hosting one in this neighborhood filled predominantly with working-class people of color, where transportation options are limited, and many lack the flexibility to take time off for a medical appointment. Alba also points to the immigrant population. They make up a third of residents.

ALBA: And, like, not speaking the language of whoever is booking the appointments on the other side at one of these vaccination sites, it just makes it harder to get vaccinated, right?

WINTERSMITH: GOTVax co-founder Dr. Alister Martin says Massachusetts' nationally-acclaimed figure of 50% vaccinated masks the state's pockets of disparity.

ALISTER MARTIN: And that's no more evidence than by looking at some of the hard-hit communities throughout the city, where you see dramatic differences in folks who are vaccinated.

WINTERSMITH: He points to Boston City data that shows only 29% of residents in Mattapan have been fully vaccinated so far. Martin says some might attribute that all to hesitance. But the nearly 5,000 shots GOTVax has distributed in hard-to-reach spots since March suggests it's also partly an access issue.

MARTIN: We've got to be in their communities. We've got to speak their languages. We've got to meet them where they're at and make it easy for them to get vaccinated when they choose to.

WINTERSMITH: And that theory about access conquering hesitancy bears out in at least one case among those at the Mattapan pop-up clinic.

FAYETTE LONG: I was very, like, anti-vaccine. I'm going to be honest (laughter). You know, I don't even take the flu shot. Honestly, I'm not really big on doing vaccines.

WINTERSMITH: Today, 26-year-old Fayette Long is one of the people getting a Johnson & Johnson shot as a fan growls cool air into a church-sanctuary-turned-COVID-clinic. Long says her apprehension eroded slightly with encouragement from vaccinated friends and family members, so she prayed. Then came a perfectly timed text message from the GOTVax team.

LONG: Hey, you know, such and such, come and get your vaccine. And I was like, OK. Something in my heart was like, just do it. So it's good that we do have these resources in our area. I feel like, you know, we don't get it often.

WINTERSMITH: Melanie Alba says it's another example of the similarities between political and vaccine campaigns, how gentle persistence from volunteers can disarm distrust.

ALBA: Being respectful, and then being ready to help them when they're ready, and I think that goes a long way.

WINTERSMITH: As shot rates slow down, she says GOTVax will likely encounter more hesitant people in Massachusetts. The best strategy for addressing that, she says, is continued outreach and access. For NPR News, I'm Saraya Wintersmith in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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