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Race Tracks, Church Dinners, Factories: Vt. Health Dept. Casts Wide Net To Reach 90K Still Unvaccinated

National Guard officers break down a COVID vaccine clinic in the parking lot of Dan & Whit's General store in Norwich. Their tents stood in front of a colorful mural and a sign that reads, "Norwich Responds to COVID-19"
Lexi Krupp
Most Vermonters who have yet to be vaccinated are open to getting the shot, according to surveys cited by the Vermont Department of Health. But many haven’t made the vaccine a priority. So the state has organized dozens of small community clinics, including one outside of Dan & Whit's General Store in Norwich.

It was a slow morning at a recent COVID vaccine clinic in Morrisville. For the first two hours it was open, no one got a shot.

The clinic, organized by the nonprofit Capstone Community Action, advertised free child care and transportation, hoping to make it easier to access. But that’s not what ultimately brought people out.

Jody Pierce of Hardwick isn’t worried about getting COVID herself. She doesn’t like shots, so getting a vaccine hadn’t been on her radar.

“I guess I never really thought about it that much because I’ve been so busy,” she said. “I clean and keep myself busy doing stuff — I help my mom and whoever needs help.”

That changed when Pierce started planning a trip to Montana to visit her grandchildren. She hasn’t seen them in two years, and she wants to be vaccinated before she gets on a plane.

“I don’t want to put my grandson, son at risk, if I was to do it without getting the shot done,” she said.

Pierce was one of seven people who got vaccinated at the clinic that day. That’s typical for these pop-up clinics according to Casey Engels, who works with Capstone to help people make a vaccination plan.

“It's almost like micro-clinics, like community-based clinics where one, five, 10 people is a huge success,” she said.

Staff from Capstone Community Action and nurses from the Vermont Department of Health stand outside the entrance to Capstone after the COVID vaccine clinic ended.
Lexi Krupp
Staff from Capstone Community Action reached out to Vermont Department of Health officials to organize the vaccine clinic at their Morrisville office.

The Vermont Department of Health has offered a blitz of small clinics at general stores, skate parks, and fairgrounds to make vaccinations as convenient as possible. They’ve also set up shop where people are already spending 40 hours each week.

“When we go right out to somebody’s workplace, people say, 'This is my chance — this might be my only chance to get vaccinated,'” said Rhonda Desrochers, a nurse with the Vermont Department of Health in Lamoille County. “I've had people tell me that they wouldn’t have gotten vaccinated had we not been there.”

Desrochers delivers vaccines about once a week at different sites across the region. She said many of the people she meets don’t feel right taking time off work or never made plans to get a shot.

Others are afraid of needles or worried about side effects. She thinks that hosting clinics at smaller, more intimate settings helps alleviate some of those fears.

“That’s one nurse’s observation,” Desrochers said.

“I've had people tell me that they wouldn’t have gotten vaccinated had we not been there.”
Rhonda Desrochers, Vermont Department of Health

Experts say the main reasons people have delayed vaccinations vary by region.

“It’s not just this uniform set of obstacles and motivators that are present,” explained Samantha Penta, a professor at the State University at Albany who studies vaccination hesitancy across the country.

“Acknowledging and understanding these location-based differences and what obstacles and motivators are, is really important as we try to think about, how do we get these remaining folks who are unvaccinated to be vaccinated,” she said.

The state Health Department sent out an online survey this winter that asked about vaccine willingness and has relied on data from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the New York Times that suggest that less than 4% of Vermonters are unwilling to get a COVID vaccine.

Officials from the Department of Health have said they’ll continue with the current approach of offering a “barnstorm” of small-scale clinics until people stop showing up.

More from VPR: Reporter Debrief: What Does The Latest News About The Delta Variant Mean For Vermont?

Aaron French, the director of the district public health office in Lamoille County, says there’s no shortage of federal funding to support the statewide effort.

“We're just going to keep plugging away and try to move those numbers upward,” he said. “Most of us in this office are registered nurses, so we’re all about giving shots. We want to see people vaccinated so we can get the world back to normal.”

Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Lexi Krupp @KruppLexi.

Lexi covers science and health stories for Vermont Public.
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