The health department could keep pleading with vaccine-hesitant people to roll up their sleeves. But if the message came from someone an unvaccinated person already knows, public health officials figured, it might convince them to get in line for a shot.
So the department brought in a local marketing firm to produce videos of community members explaining why they got vaccinated. A longtime pediatrician and the county’s deputy health officer answered frequently asked questions about the vaccine.
The push didn’t stop there. In a first of its kind partnership, community paramedics were deployed to set up clinics in schools and factories. The pediatrician, Dr. Anita Joshi, and other local physicians are helping administer vaccines and coronavirus tests.
On Wednesday, Montgomery County moved into the orange on the state’s COVID-19 map for the first time since February, indicating community spread is approaching high levels as the more contagious Delta variant collides with elevated levels of vaccine hesitancy. Unvaccinated people account for almost every new positive case, the health department says.
About 6 in 10 people in Montgomery County are not fully vaccinated, according to the state’s COVID-19 vaccine dashboard.
Anticipating the change in color status, county health officer Dr. Scott Douglas told health board members Tuesday he was discouraged “because I feel like we worked really hard as a health department, and it’s just so disappointing that we’re not better than we are.”
The incidence of local COVID-19 cases is nearly twice the state average, according to the health department. The county is now reporting about 40 positive cases weekly, up from 14 cases weekly in May.
Case demographics show people in their 20s account for most of the new infections, an age group less likely to get vaccinated or take precautions against the coronavirus, public health experts say.
The rise in cases has left local health experts wondering what else can be done to get more people vaccinated, especially as the new school year begins in early August.
Through a partnership with the Crawfordsville Fire Department, the health department will offer children who’ve received at least one vaccine dose a chance to win prizes. Dates will be announced for upcoming vaccine clinics for students.
Vaccine appointments at the health department and pharmacies are going unfilled. Amid the push to increase vaccination rates, the state health department has gone from encouraging appointments to simply urging people to show up at a clinic.
Physicians say some patients simply cannot be convinced to take the vaccine.
“They’re very firm in their conviction,” said health board member Dr. Mary Glass, who practices internal medicine.
Glass added that people who never trusted the vaccine early on haven’t changed their minds, despite her best efforts. Physicians say they hear everything from concerns that the vaccines have not received full FDA approval to conspiracy theories about the vaccines containing a microchip.
Other community leaders also have a role to play in encouraging vaccinations, the health department says. “But if they aren’t on board, then that makes it very difficult,” Douglas said.
Public health experts urge unvaccinated people to wear a mask in public, advice they concede has been going unheeded.
“If you had to reinstitute going back to masking, are people going to do it?” asked health board president Nancy Sennett.
“I don’t think so,” Glass replied. “They didn’t do it very much the first time.”
“Right,” Sennett added, “sometimes you were the only person in the store [with a face covering] and people were looking at you like you had two heads because you had this mask on.”