Now it’s all about the ground game.
With more than 2.7 million Massachusetts residents fully vaccinated and the pace of COVID-19 shots slowing markedly, state officials are stepping up efforts to reach the holdouts.
No longer is the state’s campaign focused on moving thousands through mass vaccination sites such as Gillette Stadium, which is slated to close next month.
Instead, the scene is shifting to smaller venues like American Veterans Hall in Haverhill, where at times last Thursday there were more vaccinators and support staff than people seeking shots. Kenyan-born Teresia Wanjihia was able to walk in, register, and get injected within minutes.
“It was perfect,” said her daughter Anne Waweru, who accompanied her 61-year-old mother to the pop-up clinic near her home. “It was five minutes walking distance.”
The veterans hall was among scores of clinics where walk-in vaccinations — no appointment needed — became available for the first time last week, part of a strategy to make getting a shot easy and low-key. Vaccinators are also counting on “trusted advisors” such as family doctors and neighborhood pastors to reassure the reluctant.
“I talked to my doctor, and he said ‘You’re getting it,’ ” said Manny Matias, who took the advice and got his first injection of the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the veterans hall. Matias, president of the local Latino Coalition, is urging others to follow his lead in Haverhill, one of 20 communities hardest hit by the virus that are getting extra doses from the state.
So far, more than 70 percent of the state’s vaccines have been distributed by hospitals, pharmacies, and giant vaccination centers, but that’s about to change. State officials last week laid out a timetable for phasing out four mass vaccination sites by June while shifting doses to community and regional sites, which have received a much smaller share until now.
Doses will also go to primary care physicians, who say they are well positioned to persuade patients to get inoculated.
“I believe some of the targeted resources [are] going to improve our numbers,” Governor Charlie Baker told reporters during a visit to a regional vaccination center at the Encore Boston Harbor casino in Everett last Wednesday.
The state’s numbers so far are among the nation’s best. More than 3.9 million people in the state have had at least one shot, already meeting President Biden’s target of giving first doses to 70 percent of American adults by July 4. Baker’s own goal is fully vaccinating 4.1 million residents by Independence Day.
But with the most eager shot seekers now immunized, demand in Massachusetts is tapering off. For the week ending last Thursday, the seven-day rolling average of doses administered in the state tumbled nearly 20 percent from the previous week to 66,336 shots daily. After months of heavy demand-and-supply constraints, there are now plenty of vaccine shots available at sites across Massachusetts, a trend seen in many other states.
The shift to greater outreach is part of a national trend: Biden last week said the US vaccination drive was entering a new and more decentralized phase.
“We need to be getting local, and that means identifying networks of people who can help,” said David Broniatowski, associate professor and researcher at George Washington University, who proposes giving vaccines at popular gathering spots such as banks and barber shops. “A lot of this comes down to getting the vaccine to where people are.”
Reaching the hesitant, skeptical, and resistant residents — along with many who lack the technology to schedule appointments or the transportation to get to clinics — has become a paramount task for state leaders. Vaccinators say it will probably prove to be the most challenging task yet in the state’s unprecedented five-month vaccination campaign.
“This is the ground work,” said Dr. Sly Douglas, the Northeast regional leader for Curative, a state vaccine contractor, which has forged partnerships with community leaders at small sites in cities like Haverhill and Springfield. “By bringing the vaccine here, we try to make this as easy and accessible as possible. For a lot of people, if they don’t come here, they don’t get vaccinated.”
The community clinics are a far cry from the mass vaccination sites, which inject hundreds of people an hour with factory-like precision at places like Boston’s Hynes Convention Center, the Eastfield Mall in Springfield, or Gillette in Foxborough.
At the American Veterans Hall in Haverhill, just 30 people were vaccinated Thursday. An audio system played up-tempo rock music and manager Gerard Marchand said he welcomed the company, but couldn’t pour drinks because the bar’s been closed for more than a year due to the pandemic.
Mayor James Fiorentini of Haverhill, who dropped by the clinic, said many of the city’s Black residents are warming to the COVID-19 vaccine. But he acknowledged, “with the Latino community, we still have a lot of work to do.” He has made public service announcements on Spanish-language radio, posted videos touting the vaccine on his Facebook page, and is trying to set up clinics at local factories that employ Hispanic workers.
“My message is don’t worry about the vaccine, worry about the virus,” Fiorentini said. “The vaccine is not going to hurt you, but the virus could kill you. That’s what I’ve been telling people over and over.”
Door-knockers are bringing a similar message right to people’s homes and businesses in high-priority communities.
On a rainy Wednesday, a team of state contractors delivered storefront signs reading “La Vacuna Salva Vidas” — Spanish for “the vaccine saves lives” — to small businesses along a largely Latino commercial strip off Maverick Square in East Boston.
Maria Salgado, the gregarious owner of Taqueria y Pupuseria Cancun, a Mexican-Salvadoran restaurant on Chelsea Street, was waiting for lunch-hour diners. When a trio of canvassers offered her a sign, she gladly accepted.
“No customers; everybody’s scared,” said Salgado, a Mexican native who opened the restaurant in mid-pandemic last year. “Some are scared because people on Facebook say not to get [vaccinated]. I tell them to take the vaccine because more virus, more strains are coming from Brazil, from England.”
But when the outreach team moved on to apartment buildings in the neighborhood, armed with vaccine appointment cards to hand out, few residents answered the knocks on their doors. Those who opened the doors said they’d already been vaccinated or didn’t want to talk to the canvassers.
No one was giving up. “In some communities, people won’t leave their immediate areas,” said Eduardo Nettle, a population health coordinator for the state Department of Public Health, who accompanied the door-knockers. “But [vaccine] access is important, especially for people who don’t have English.”
Family doctors, some of whom have clamored for vaccine for their patients for months, were heartened to hear that the state plans to boost supplies to physicians’ offices.
“If we can get the vaccine to every single doctor’s office, that’s going to help,” said Dr. Robyn Riseberg, founder of Boston Community Pediatrics, who treats many Black, Latino, and immigrant children and urges their parents to get vaccinated.
“I say to them, ‘If I had the vaccine here, would you get it?’ And they say yes. But they’re not going to seek it out.”