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Program to bring vaccine info to doorsteps of unvaccinated Marylanders

“By going door-to-door and sharing information, we can help more Marylanders make an informed decision about getting vaccinated,” says state Health Secretary Dennis Schrader. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Even as Maryland’s COVID-19 vaccination rates climb, with over 80% of eligible residents having received at least a dose of a vaccine, the state continues to search for ways to close that gap, especially in ZIP codes with lower-than-average rates.

The Maryland Department of Health’s most recent initiative to try to reach these areas will be a grassroots, door-to-door canvassing effort, the department announced this week. MDH’s Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities is distributing $3 million among 27 community organizations that will use the funds to provide Marylanders in undervaccinated regions with more information about accessing the vaccine.  

The funds come from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cooperative agreement. 

The Department of Health has provided or will provide each of these organizations, which are based in jurisdictions including Baltimore, La Plata in Charles County and Preston in Caroline County, with training that includes lessons on COVID-related medical terminology and translation, cultural competency and personal safety. 

“We have made tremendous progress in vaccinating Marylanders against COVID-19, yet we understand that some unvaccinated residents still need more information,” MDH Secretary Dennis R. Schrader said in the announcement. “By going door-to-door and sharing information, we can help more Marylanders make an informed decision about getting vaccinated as we continue our efforts to ensure there is no arm left behind.” 

Door-to-door canvassing is a tried-and-true method of distributing vaccinations, according to Rupali Limaye, associate scientist with Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.  

These campaigns have been used to distribute a number of vaccinations globally and are especially effective for bringing childhood vaccines to remote communities in developing nations — Limaye herself has traveled with vaccinators distributing the measles-rubella shot in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. 

“I’m sort of surprised that we’re this late in the game at starting this strategy,” she said. 

The MDH program will not work exactly like its global counterparts; MDH’s partner organizations will be going door to door providing residents with information about the vaccine in hopes of increasing vaccine uptake and reducing minority vaccine hesitancy, but they won’t actually bring the vaccine door-to-door. They will also be supporting local vaccine and testing efforts, according to an MDH spokesperson. 

Still, there are people and communities that Limaye believes will benefit from door-to-door canvassing, such as the uninsured or those without a primary care physician. 

“One thing we’ve heard very clearly here in Maryland is, if you have questions about the vaccine, talk to your primary care provider. But a lot of folks … don’t have a primary care provider,” she said. “Because there is no person they trust from a health care setting, that’s why so many people have been susceptible to misinformation, because they turn to social media.” 

Bringing a knowledgeable party directly to patients’ doors, instead of asking them to seek out information themselves, could have a significant impact, Limaye said. What kind of impact will vary neighborhood to neighborhood, depending on how many people are already vaccinated among other factors, but any amount of vaccine uptake matters. 

“Small increases in coverage — bumping from 65% to 70% — actually reaps huge benefits for the community because (it reduces) community transmission,” she said. 

And bringing in local organizations to do the work is the best way to go about it, she noted, as people are more likely to open their doors to community members and neighbors than to a representative from the state health department. 

Canvassing is slated to begin in mid-September and will continue through next June.