by Chris Hippensteel
Barnett Harris has been talking about the COVID-19 vaccine for months — to his friends, his colleagues at Pittsburgh Mercy and to the individuals who roll through the clinics he helps set up across Pittsburgh.
In the process, he’s gotten shots into the arms of people who otherwise would’ve been hesitant. But if you ask him, he’s not convincing anybody to get the vaccine — he says he does more listening than talking. In communities where pockets of misinformation and mistrust about the vaccine remain, he offers the facts, and more importantly, one-on-one conversations.
“It comes down to people needing to be heard,” said Harris, a senior manager for community engagement at Pittsburgh Mercy.
This community-centered approach to vaccine distribution has helped advance the rollout in otherwise underserved neighborhoods. Now, with over 52% of the county fully vaccinated, those same methods may become essential to reaching the elusive goal of herd immunity.
Allegheny County’s vaccine rollout has slowed from its peak in mid-April, when an average of over 15,000 residents received a vaccination every day. Since then, that number has fallen steadily to about 1,000. The same is true on the state level, with fewer than 15,000 Pennsylvanians per day getting an injection compared to over 100,000 per day in late March and early April. That slowdown has continued despite the arrival of the more contagious Delta variant, which has prompted new urgency for vaccinations and door-to-door outreach backed by President Joe Biden.
With appointments at mass distribution sites going unfilled, local organizations say these one-on-one, community-based vaccine outreach methods are becoming more crucial than ever. And as challenges surrounding vaccine accessibility and hesitancy mount, the Allegheny County Health Department [ACHD] is looking at all strategies to increase the number of shots distributed.
The intersection of hesitancy and accessibility
A significant share of vaccine holdouts fall into two groups: those who don’t want to get the vaccine, and those who haven’t been able to.
These two issues — hesitancy and accessibility — will play a key role in the second half of the rollout, experts say. In Pittsburgh, community organizations have been working to confront both issues in the communities they serve.
“We are at a stage where it really is about hesitancy, but having ready access is important to address those hesitancy concerns,” said Dr. Tracey Conti, program director of UPMC McKeesport and a member of the Pittsburgh-based Black Equity Coalition.
A sign advertising a free walk-in vaccination clinic at Casa San Jose in Beechview. (Photo by Nick Childers/PublicSource)
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