vaccine sign outside Milwaukee mill road library
This sign outside a closed library branch on Milwaukee's northwest side advertises walk-in vaccine appointments in the building. The City of Milwaukee Health Department is getting creative to get vaccines to those who are hesitant or lack access, bringing vaccine clinics directly into communities; the department is even considering door-to-door outreach with community groups. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

With vaccinations dropping, Milwaukee is figuring out how to overcome hesitancy and get shots to people right in their own neighborhoods.

As vaccinations against COVID-19 slow down nationwide due to hesitancy, access issues, and rampant misinformation, health officials in Milwaukee and statewide are shifting their focus away from mass vaccination sites and toward vaccine clinics at local community centers and landmarks.

“I think the message that we want out in the community is: If you need a shot in the community, go to the old Mill Road library,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, speaking Monday morning at a library-branch-turned-vaccination-site on the city’s northwest side.

The hope is to both establish trust and provide easier access to people who may not be able to make the trip downtown to the federally supported mass vaccination site at the Wisconsin Center, which is set to close May 28. Milwaukee has held about 100 community vaccine clinics already, with more planned at still-operating libraries, mobile pop-up sites, and other community fixtures like churches. 

“We are bringing the vaccinations to the people,” Barrett said, adding “any arm is a good arm.”

City officials said they are also considering doing door-to-door vaccine outreach by partnering with community organizations.

“What we’ve learned is that people need to hear from people they trust, that they have relationships with, that the vaccine is safe and it’s something that they wanna do,” said Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson.

Vaccinations in Wisconsin have plummeted in the last month from a peak of 425,000 administered the week of April 4 to just 194,000 last week, according to Department of Health Services data. The speed with which the drop-off occurred alarmed health experts across the nation, who are now rolling back expectations and scrambling to figure out new ways to reach unvaccinated people.

RELATED: Experts Say the Vaccine-Hesitant Need Personal Outreach, Not Broad Lecturing

The most common solution is to scale vaccine messaging down to a hyperlocal, or even personal, level.

By tracking vaccination data granularly through Census tracts, Milwaukee is able to identify what neighborhoods might need special attention, Barrett said.

Barrett and Johnson were joined by Milwaukee Public Health Emergency Response Coordinator Dr. Nick Tomaro, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, and US Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee), all of whom toured the former Mill Road library site Monday morning. 

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) speaks Tuesday morning at the former Mill Road library in Milwaukee, which is now being used as a walk-in community vaccination clinic. Baldwin toured the clinic alongside Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, left, US Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee), Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, and city health officials. The city’s health department is launching neighborhood-level efforts to get vaccines to people who are hesitant or lack access. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

Local health clinics like the one at the old library are key to fighting vaccine hesitancy, especially in the Black community and among young people, Moore said. She urged everyone to get vaccinated.

“But for God, we will not be able to defeat this [virus],” Moore said. “And but for everybody’s participation, we won’t be able to get back to normal, get our kids back to school, get back to work.”

Although there is no longer a focus on federal or state messaging to help vaccination efforts, Baldwin said the federal government can still play a significant role by providing funds such as those made available by the American Rescue Plan.

“Once you’re talking about local messengers, the best thing the federal government can do is [provide] state and local resources … to allow local folks whose fingers are on the pulse of what needs to happen here, be able to use some of those funds to supplement the national messaging that’s going on,” Baldwin said. “In some ways, the local messaging will be even more important.”