true vue signs someone in for a covid vaccine
True Vue, lead organizer with Eau Claire's Black & Brown Womyn Power Coalition, registers a man to be vaccinated against COVID-19 Monday during a community vaccine clinic at Eau Claire's Hmong Mutual Assistance Association. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Mass messaging is out and trusted spaces are in to overcome widespread vaccine hesitancy. Here’s what different communities are doing to fight it.

Wisconsin vaccinators are redirecting their focus away from mass vaccination sites and toward small-scale pop-up clinics as vaccination rates plummet and hesitancy remains a significant barrier to achieving herd immunity. 

No longer are droves of people making the trek to a large clinic that can give a thousand or more shots per day, and experts say mass messaging from health departments or state and federal officials will do little to help people feel more comfortable with the vaccine at this point. Instead, COVID-19 vaccination efforts are happening at a neighborhood level in such locations as libraries, churches, and community centers in areas where hesitancy is high and low-income individuals may not be able to easily reach a more centralized location.

“As a church, we have trust in a way in our community that some sort of other organization doesn’t—especially a city or county organization,” said the Rev. Jonathan Barker, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha, which administered about 800 doses of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine over the course of five vaccine clinics this spring. 

Grace is located in Kenosha’s Uptown neighborhood, home to the city’s largest pockets of Black and Latino residents. Many neighborhood residents are low-income and were particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, so leaders at the church and community center scheduled clinics at the same time as their normally scheduled food pantry program that provides food for more than 100 families.

The Rev. Jonathan Barker, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha, stands in the church sanctuary, where healthcare workers administered about 800 doses of Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 during a series of vaccine clinics this spring. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

The sense of community and trust established by the church and its parishioners went a long way toward dispelling concerns some people had with the vaccine, Barker said.

“Knowing that you’ve got friends that have gotten it, knowing that your pastor has gotten it, knowing that the people you worship with have gotten it, knowing your pantry volunteers have gotten it,” Barker said. “It helps, it builds momentum, and it makes it seem less scary.”

RELATED: A Matter of Trust: Experts Say the Vaccine-Hesitant Need Personal Outreach, Not Broad Lecturing

That sense of trust in a familiar setting played out in Eau Claire Monday, when 159 mostly Hmong residents received COVID-19 vaccinations at a clinic at the city’s Hmong Mutual Assistance Association (HMAA) site. The county health department partnered with that organization and others to put on the clinic, one of multiple pop-up clinics in recent weeks to reach out to populations who may have difficulties accessing the vaccine. 

While the health department serves as a reliable source of information related to COVID-19 for many, others are more comfortable hearing about the vaccine from people they know and trust, said Audrey Boerner, public information officer with the Eau Claire City-County Health Department. 

“We realize we’re not the best messenger on this for everyone,” Boerner said, “so we are working with trusted messengers within different communities to spread the message that the vaccine is safe.”

In addition to language and cultural barriers, Boerner said, some people have difficulty accessing vaccine clinics because they lack transportation. Others are hindered by work schedules that conflict with clinic times, she said. Still others are refusing the vaccine for political reasons. 

True Vue is lead organizer with the Black & Brown Womyn Power Coalition, one of the groups the health department has partnered with. Holding Monday’s vaccine clinic in the HMAA building helped attract that population, she said, because Hmong people generally trust that organization, and some are familiar with the setting. 

“Many in our Hmong community, especially those who don’t speak English well, have questions about getting the vaccine,” Vue said. “By having this clinic here, it eliminates a barrier.”

That strategy helped prompt Katlyn Xiong, a 22-year-old Eau Claire native who currently lives in the Twin Cities for graduate school, to get vaccinated. Rather than stand in long lines at clinics where she lives, she drove 90 miles to Eau Claire for her shot. 

“This is a smaller site, it feels more controlled,” Xiong said of the HMAA vaccine location. “It’s a site that I trust, a place I am more comfortable with.”

State Department of Health Services officials had hoped to near herd immunity, or 80% of those eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, by this summer. But that appears unlikely as vaccination numbers have plunged in recent weeks. Forty-five percent of state residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine and 38% are fully vaccinated. 

To boost vaccination numbers, other Wisconsin cities are also conducting hyperlocal vaccine outreach efforts. Racine announced Tuesday that it will hold a vaccine clinic at the city’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, which is located in an overwhelmingly Black and Latino neighborhood. 

Milwaukee has held about 100 community vaccine clinics so far, and city health officials are even considering door-to-door outreach. The city is also opening walk-in vaccine clinics at three public libraries and partnering with Black Husky Brewing to host a “Double Your Dose” clinic that will provide free beers for people who bring an unvaccinated friend to get a shot.

“We are bringing the vaccinations to the people,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett on Monday at a vaccine clinic, adding “any arm is a good arm.”