We Can Boost Low Vaccination Rates The Same Way We Raise Voter Turnout

A woman is vaccinated in East Boston as part of the GOTVax campaign. (Courtesy)
A woman is vaccinated in East Boston as part of the GOTVax campaign. (Courtesy)

A volunteer working from home in Cambridge sends a text message to Deng, a 67-year-old Chinese homebound woman in Boston, asking if she's been vaccinated. "No," Deng types back. Then Deng's daughter texts the volunteer.

"My mother has not been vaccinated but would like to be," writes the daughter, Amanda. "Can you help?”

Lucy, the volunteer and a medical student, tells Amanda that our group, GOTVax, will have a pop-up vaccine clinic in Deng's building in a few days. Amanda confirms her mother will attend. "Thank you! Thank you!" she writes.

During a pandemic that has taken too many lives, Deng is one of more than 3,000 residents in Boston’s hardest-hit communities who have been vaccinated through GOTVax, a COVID-19 vaccine outreach initiative we help lead.

GOTVax assembles health care providers, students, electoral campaign staff and community leaders to serve as volunteers in a robust outreach and canvassing operation. Our efforts use traditional get-out-the-vote tactics: wide-scale text messaging, phone banking and door-knocking.

Political campaign managers understand that advertisements, rallies and interviews alone do not win elections. They launch get-out-the-vote programs to turn out voters and ensure they show up to the polls. Their strategies include phone banking, door-to-door canvassing and even driving residents to voting centers — similar to our initiative.

The early success of our program is promising, and we hope others adopt similar blueprints.

After texting folks like Deng, our second mode of outreach includes phone calls to people we identify by working with community organizations, unions and public housing managers. Multilingual volunteers call hundreds of Boston’s residents one or two evenings each week.

Recently, one of these residents included Jisel, a 50-year-old Latina essential worker who lives in a low-income housing unit in East Boston. Lucy speaks to her on the phone and finds that both Jisel and her daughter, a young woman with epilepsy and other health conditions, want the COVID-19 vaccine but haven't yet received it. The following Saturday, Jisel and her daughter receive the vaccine at their neighborhood church, Iglesia La Luz Del Mundo.

Our third method of outreach includes door-knocking. We deploy a group of community organizers, students and health care providers to public housing units or open neighborhoods — think barbershops, bus stops, etc. — where they inform the community members about our upcoming pop-up clinics. Recently, we knocked at the home of a 54-year-old Spanish-speaking man in the South End of Boston.

“Mr. Martinez, are you home?” we ask. Mr. Martinez answers the door, and we tell him that we are vaccinating residents from his housing unit later that day. “I had COVID-19 last year,” he said, “I think I’m good.” We tell him the CDC still recommends vaccination. “Really? I didn’t know that," he says. "Okay, I’ll come down.”

“I had COVID-19 last year,” he said, “I think I’m good.” We tell him the CDC still recommends vaccination.

Research suggests that contact with a canvasser increases voter turnout by 4.3 percentage points, a modest but meaningful increase. By our calculations, if Massachusetts increased the proportion of Latinos vaccinated by 4.3 percentage points, over 30,000 more Latinos would likely receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

GOTVax also applies lessons from community organizing. A significant proportion of our volunteers are Black, Latinx and Asian, and many of them speak multiple languages — not to mention many are also health care providers who can answer questions about the vaccines. These two components allow us to better connect with the communities we engage.

To be successful, get-out-the-vote style vaccine outreach programs require support from their state government. Clinicians must have adequate supplies of the COVID-19 vaccines. These programs must also ensure non-partisanship in their partnerships --especially when working with electoral campaign staff. Local politics cannot become another barrier to vaccination efforts.

Now is the moment to seek innovative models and holistic COVID-19 vaccine outreach strategies to ensure equity and end the pandemic. Applying lessons from get-out-the-vote campaigns to a GOTVax program may ensure that Boston’s most vulnerable community members find hope during one of their most challenging years.

Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook and Twitter.


Headshot of David Velasquez

David Velasquez Cognoscenti contributor
David Velasquez is a student of medicine, public policy and business at Harvard University.


Headshot of Alister Martin

Alister Martin Cognoscenti contributor
Alister Martin, MD, MPP is an emergency physician in Boston.



More from WBUR

Listen Live