With 75% of the population of Vermont having gotten one or both vaccination doses against COVID-19, the Vermont Department of Health is thinking creatively about how to reach the remaining people who are willing to get the shot but haven’t yet.
Since before the first vaccine from Pfizer was approved for emergency use, a long, multi-phase strategy was in the works to establish the state’s health department as the “trusted source for vaccine information, according to Christie Vallencourt, the chronic disease information director for the Vermont Department of Health.
When people did a web search for “vaccine Vermont,” the health department was the first response that would come up, said Vallencourt, who has been the crisis and emergency risk communications and marketing director during the pandemic.
A weekly newsletter on the vaccine availability was made available to reach those Vermonters who were eager to get vaccinated and just needed to know when and where.
Similar steps were taken to let Vermonters know who was eligible to get the shot as those parameters expanded.
Some of the first Vermonters who were able to get vaccinated were doctors, nurses, first responders and other members of the medical community who were invited to share their vaccination status and photos of the the actual shot being given. Vallencourt said it was a small, but effective campaign.
“Before you knew it, hospitals and other big health service providers were using that hashtag and contributing to this project. From there, we were able to promote those early adopters because we wanted to start to set the tone for social norming, that Vermonters wanted to get vaccinated,” she said.
Vallencourt said she believed the #OurShotVT campaign succeeded, in part, because it was supported by medical professionals, who had the community’s trust.
In April, Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, appeared in a public service announcement that Vallencourt said was directed toward people who still had questions about getting the vaccine. She said it was a population the health department staff wouldn’t qualify as “vaccine hesitant,” but had concerns.
“That performed extremely well, and it was aired on TV and streaming and radio and digital and social media and YouTube and we reached most of Vermont. We estimated about three-quarters of Vermonters were reached with that campaign,” she said.
Another campaign used content from Vermonters all over the state who talked about the opportunities they had after getting the shot.
“One of those themes that clearly emerged for us was that Vermonters were excited to get back to things they missed. They were excited to see their friends, go out to restaurants, go back to the theater, sporting events. There is a kind of universal longing for things that have been lost.” she said.
The latest campaign will use video taken at walk-in clinics. Vallencourt said the people, who were invited to be recorded only with their consent, were “not totally sold on getting vaccinated.”
“What we heard was, not unlike what we had been hearing from the people who submitted content to us. They were doing it for their loved ones, for others, it was a huge thing, for people that they cared about,” she said.
Vallencourt said many of those people were persuaded because the process is now easy and people they trusted, family, friends or their own medical providers, had reassured them.
Deputy Commissioner Tracy Dolan, of the health department, said the state had started from a place of having less vaccine than needed to meet the demand, but the number of patients dwindled quickly.
“At the beginning we thought that vaccine hesitancy would be what we were dealing with but what we’re seeing more, maybe — there’s certainly some vaccine hesitancy there — but what we’re seeing more is that we have a percentage of people who aren’t opposed to getting vaccinated, they just haven’t gotten it yet. That might be about convenience, it might be about waiting a little bit longer to see what it looks like, it might be about peer influence,” she said.
Dolan said the health department was using a “place-based” approach of going to where people are — like the beach, which has already been done once as the warmer weather starts to be felt.
Churches may be the site for future clinics if their leaders are willing, Dolan added.
As an example, Dolan said there had been a state-supported site for distribution of food to people who were dealing with food insecurity issues.
“As we saw our vaccination numbers dwindle, we thought, ‘OK, there are people, 650 at a time, showing up at a location, to receive a box of food. What if we let them know that when they arrived, they could also be vaccinated?” she said.
There have also been clinics in the past few weeks that have specifically reached out to the LGBTQ and BIPOC communities. Dolan said the communities that had been identified included people learning English and farm workers.
“We don’t have a lot of information about whether or not people who identify as LGBTQ are lower or higher in terms of vaccine rates, but it’s another way to say, ‘Who is the trusted messenger?’ for a particular group, and how can we work with that trusted messenger to get access to folks who want to get vaccinated,” Dolan said.
Beside getting more Vermonters vaccinated, Dolan noted the targeted clinics might help develop better relationships and foster trust among groups who have traditionally been underserved medically.
Dolan said that has included rural communities.
“Any community that’s not obviously mainstream is underserved in part just by the structure of how we even get messaging out. … I think one of the benefits to these new partnerships is, we will be able to work with them on other issues moving forward,” she said.