Massachusetts cities ramp up outreach efforts as vaccine hesitancy wall looms

Dr. Richard Herman thought the “floodgates would open” on April 19 when all adults became eligible for a coronavirus vaccine in Massachusetts.

But the phones at Brockton’s Board of Health weren’t exactly ringing off the hook this past week, and slots for a city vaccination clinic on Saturday were slow to fill up.

“Usually in the first two days the slots are gone, but now the calls are coming in more slowly,” Herman, Brockton’s pandemic consultant, said. “It’s possible we’ve reached that point where it’s now the folks who are on the fence.”

Just days into vaccinating the general public, leaders in some hard-hit cities say they’re rapidly reaching an inflection point where the willing and eager have gotten their shots and efforts to persuade the most hesitant to roll up their sleeves will take priority.

“We’re at the point now where folks can readily sign up for one,” Herman said. “Now the mission is to continue focusing on difficult-to-reach communities, the vaccine-hesitant individuals.”

Many of the challenges in getting people signed up for shots haven’t changed: Language barriers; lack of internet access; distrust of the vaccines, of the medical system, of the government.

“We’re trying to do whatever it takes — canvassers going out in community door-to-door, partnering with the (state) Department of Public Health, multilingual telephone lines for the mayor’s office, interpreters at vaccination clinics,” Herman said.

The Baker administration has put $30 million toward boosting vaccine access and combating hesitancy in Brockton and 19 other municipalities disproportionately ravaged by the pandemic, and is launching another round of multilingual television ads as part of its $5 million awareness campaign.

Gov. Charlie Baker said this week that Massachusetts has the lowest vaccine hesitancy rate in the nation at less than 10%, per federal data.

Many residents are “eager” to get vaccinated, Baker said, but “we still have a lot of work to do in communities of color that have borne the brunt of this pandemic.”

Racial disparities in vaccinations are improving but enduring in several hard-hit cities, including Lawrence, where Board of Health Director Mike Armano said ongoing supply issues — not helped by the recent Johnson & Johnson pause and production problems — make consistent messaging harder.

Boston Health Chief Marty Martinez said a big part of the upcoming effort isn’t so much persuading people who are dead-set against the vaccine to get it — it’s making sure it’s readily available for those who are open to a shot, but just don’t want to jump through hoops for one.

“Sometimes hesitancy is just how convenient it is,” Martinez said, talking about the “pivot” the city will need to make toward prioritizing ease of access through walk-ins and neighborhood clinics.

“More than 50% of Bostonians have their first shot — but that just means the next 50% is going to be much harder to get vaccinated,” Martinez said.

Revere revamped its outreach efforts this week with a new campaign aimed at getting 70% of the city’s residents vaccinated by July 4.

The multilingual print and digital effort features Mayor Brian Arrigo and dozens of other “vaccine champions” whose stories the city hopes will encourage others to roll up their sleeves. It builds on outreach already being conducted by city and state COVID-19 ambassadors in neighborhoods and at businesses and houses of worship.

“We haven’t reached that point where people are not showing up,” Arrigo said. “But it’s coming sooner rather than later and it’s going to be a challenge.”

Twelve slots went unfilled at Brockton’s clinic on Saturday. And Chelsea City Manager Thomas Ambrosino said about 25 Pfizer doses went unused at a Federal Emergency Management Agency clinic in his city on Friday.

Ambrosino chalked it up to the timing of the late-afternoon clinic more than hesitancy taking hold, “but at some point in the next three or four weeks, there’s going to be more supply than demand.”

Read More