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With Shots Widely Available Across N.H., Push Is On To Vaccinate The Reluctant And Hard-To-Reach

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Alli Fam / NHPR
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This vaccine clinic at a community center in Dover is one of several across the state aimed at vaccinating hard-to-reach populations.

Every adult is now eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine in New Hampshire. But, there’s still a long way to go to reach the entire population. That’s why public health workers across the state are trying to connect with those who may have trouble accessing the vaccine — and those who aren’t sure they want one in the first place.

That’s now playing out at places like the community center on Central Avenue in Dover. Normally, it provides support for residents who need help finding an apartment search or applying for government benefits. But one Friday afternoon earlier this month, it was transformed into a pop-up vaccine clinic.

Christina Laughton of Somersworth and dozens of others came through the doors. Laughton heard about it through her local food pantry.

“They just told me to show up: ‘you’ll go there, and they’ll take care of you,’ ” Laughton said. “So, here I am!”

That “just show up” mentality is just what this clinic was going for. It was one of several that day organized by Community Action Partnership, or CAP, of Strafford County, which were aimed at making it easier for the region's vulnerable populations to get a vaccine.

The Strafford County effort is part of a push across the state to get vaccines to people with all kinds of barriers: a lack of transportation, transient housing, limited English proficiency and more.

This chart shows that Strafford County has steered most of its equity-focused COVID-19 vaccine doses toward people experiencing geographic isolation, racial and ethnic minorities, and low-income residents, according to state data.

Betsey Parker, the organization's CEO, said that while fixed sites at state-run clinics or pharmacy chains work for many people, for others, “that access is really challenging.”

Parker said instead of just relying on people to come to where the shots are, they’re bringing the shots into the community: going into encampments where those experiencing homelessness may be living, partnering with local soup kitchens, and holding a clinic at a nearby needle exchange.

That “meeting people where they’re at” strategy was evident right after the clinic in Dover, when Parker’s team found themselves with extra vaccine doses. They decided to take them to a nearby low-income mobile home park.

While the goal of the trip was to quickly get shots into arms, the clinic also highlighted another challenge the state is up against: vaccine hesitancy.

As the public health team asked around, they got a lot of no’s. Ultimately, there's a big difference between offering people shots and getting them to say yes to a vaccine. A recent University of New Hampshire poll showed that a quarter of Granite Staters say they probably will not or almost certainly will not get a vaccine.

That was the case for Doreen Allen: She was at the park when the public health team was offering the extra doses, but decided not to get one.

After the clinic wrapped up, she sat on a friend's lawn, and explained her reasoning: “I just have never had it done; I just don’t know what it’s going to do to me.”

Although Allen was nervous about getting a shot, she was also worried about catching COVID-19.

“I just started as a dishwasher, so I work four days a week, and I’m around a lot of people,” she said.

Allen also had a lot of questions around the vaccine: Does it come with a price tag? Will she be able to return to work right away?

While side effects like tiredness and chills, may prevent some people from going to work for a day or two, the vaccine is free. But the impromptu nature of this clinic meant vaccine education wasn’t a focus, and Allen didn’t talk to anyone about her concerns.

Elsewhere in Strafford County, CAP is working with community leaders who are doing that work. One of them is Sandra Pontoh, reverend at the Maranatha Indonesian United Church of Christ in Madbury. She’s used her strong ties to the local Indonesian community to help coordinate four vaccine clinics so far.

“I'm not saying that I’m an important person,” she said, “but someone that they can trust.”

When the clinics first started, there was a lot more hesitancy. People came, she said, but they were nervous. Now, she laughs, “It’s like a party!”

So what changed? To put it simply, Pontoh said, the word is spreading: not just that people can trust the vaccine, but also that they can trust the vaccine process. 

Pontoh and others have tried to make sure that immigrants, for example, know that they won’t put themselves at risk for deportation by signing up for a shot. The clinics she coordinates allow attendees to bypass ID requirements that exist at the state’s fixed sites. Clinics are staffed with Indonesian volunteers and a translator.

All that, she says, helps people feel more comfortable getting a vaccine.

As the vaccine rollout continues, the efforts to work with community leaders, and offer vaccine education will be needed in fighting COVID-19 and access disparities. Because right now, not everyone has a Sandra Pontoh

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