LYNN — Vaccinating Massachusetts residents against COVID-19 is a game of inches now.
Thomas An Do was logging plenty of them on a recent Saturday morning, going door to door in Lynn, trying to sell the shot to some of the 2 million or so holdouts in this state, which has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country.
The 17-year-old is one of an army of state canvassers who have spent the summer walking the streets in communities hardest hit by COVID-19. The rising senior at Malden Catholic lives in Lynn, and knows COVID firsthand: His whole family got sick with it in spring, and Do’s parents had to close their convenience store for several weeks. Do missed weeks of in-person school and lost his sense of smell for months. They’re all vaccinated now.
He is a foot soldier in a campaign just like any get-out-the-vote operation, except in this one, the candidate is the vaccine.
And just like in any campaign, some of the folks behind those doors have already made up their minds: They’re not buying what Do is selling.
“I don’t believe in it,” said a 40-ish man in a front yard on Park Street. “My main reason is, it’s not FDA approved. I don’t want to put anything in my body that’s not approved.” But full FDA approval, which is imminent, wouldn’t necessarily convert him either, the man said.
Do logged the visit and moved on. A couple of people who opened their doors were already vaccinated. But mostly, doors remained closed. An official who oversees the canvassing operation at the state Department of Public Health says about 29 percent of people open their doors when canvassers knock, but, over several hours on two recent outings, Do’s rate was way lower than that.
The canvassing is just one of a bunch of strategies state and local authorities are trying in the hopes of nudging the share of fully vaccinated residents up from 63.2 percent: mobile vaccination clinics, festivals and park parties, the Vax Express train, the lottery, and mountains of advertising. The totals are ticking up, but it’s slow going: A recent Chelsea festival offering folks who get shots $25 gift cards got 175 first doses into arms; a clinic with gift cards outside America’s Food Basket in Mattapan ended with 26 first doses; an outdoor event in Lowell with free food enticed 64 people to take the plunge.
The whole state’s first-shot rate ticked up by just over 1 percent in the last couple of weeks; Lynn did a little better, at 1½ percent. It’s slow going, but it’s going.
“The main point isn’t to get people to agree to the vaccination, but to get the canvassers out there to build awareness,” said Kiame Mahaniah, head of the Lynn Community Health Center. Just seeing workers like Do on their streets gets folks used to the idea of getting the shot, he said.
The health center, which administered about 1,000 shots a day for months at the city’s now-closed mass vaccination site, was stuck at about 60 or 70 daily shots until recently. Among the center’s 41,000 patients, about 55 percent are vaccinated, Mahaniah estimates, with rates the lowest among those ages 12-15, and 18-30. Patients who speak Spanish, Khmer, Bengali, and Arabic have taken the vaccine at higher rates than those whose preferred language is English.
But here, as elsewhere, vaccine rates ticked up over the last week. The Delta variant — and the disasters unfolding in Florida, Texas, Mississippi, and other states whose leaders refuse to do what is needed to stop its spread — has scared a bunch more people into finally getting their doses, and shots at the health center are now at around 90 a day.
“The national media is one of the biggest drivers of demand,” Mahaniah said. Employers requiring workers to be vaccinated is another, so let’s see more of that. Let’s see more of every tool we have to build protection, even if it comes in dribs and drabs, door by door.
At one point in their travels, Do and a co-worker introduced themselves to the owner of a pretty house with a well-tended garden. Did he get vaccinated yet?
“Of course I did!” he said impatiently, as if it were the most ridiculous question imaginable.