Hear our entire hour on vaccine mistrust and how to overcome it here.
Miguel Rodriguez has lived in Camden, New Jersey for 40 years. He knows everybody.
"Everywhere I go, someone knows me," he says.
For the past few weeks, Miguel’s been using that community knowledge to fight the pandemic. He’s been going door-to-door, passing out information about COVID-19, like where to get tested, or where to get mental health support.
He also talks to his neighbors about getting the vaccine. A lot of them are hesitant, citing conflicting headlines about its safety and efficacy.
"They don't trust the vaccine because when they watch the news every day, you know, they say something different about it, right?" Miguel says.
"So a lot of them is like real hesitant and say to themselves, 'Then why should I even bother taking a vaccine if I can still get it?'" he adds.
As many as 25% of Americans are uncertain about getting a COVID vaccine. 15% say they are totally unwilling to get it, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey last month.
In Camden County, N.J., Paschal Nwako, a health officer, knew that in order to get more people comfortable with a COVID vaccine, the department would have to initiate conversations about the vaccine long before they asked people to sign up for their first shots.
The Camden County Department of Health launched an outreach program in October, before any vaccines were even approved.
"What we found out is that there is vaccine hesitancy in that community," Dr. Nwako says. "So we intensified effort with faith-based organizations and all of our partners in Camden City to make sure people in that city and other areas of the county will accept the vaccine."
There’s a reason Dr. Nwako wanted Camden residents to hear first from people they already know and trust.
"They think you are the government, that you want to sell something to them that might harm them," he says. "So we go with the faith-based, people who speak with them on a weekly basis at church ... we also go to the community leaders."
People like Miguel Rodriguez.
Miguel got involved in the county’s initiative through his role on a community advisory committee for the Camden Coalition of Health Care Providers.
He remembers a recent conversation he had with a woman who was reluctant about the COVID vaccine. So, he switched tacks, and instead talked to her about how successful childhood vaccines have been for diseases like measles.
"She stopped and she thought about it for a second. She said, 'You know what, you’re right. But first what I’m going to do is ... see 100,000 people get it and see how they react. And then I’ll get it,'" he recalls.
"And I said, 'OK, but at least you’re going to get it. It’s worth it for me to come out here and talk to y’all about it so I can convince you to get it.'"
Dr. Nwako says he empathizes with people who have questions. Here’s a brand new vaccine, developed in record time, in the midst of public health disaster. He also says that 92% of Camden’s residents are people of color. They can point to well-documented instances of racism in American health care.
But, still, Dr. Nwako is hopeful that if built carefully and respectfully, trust can be viral too.
"The good news is it’s out in the community," he says. "People of color and minorities are taking this vaccine and we haven’t seen any, a lot of adverse reactions to this vaccine around the country. So with that, we hope the hesitancy will reduce in our community."
Since October, the Camden County Health Department and its partners have knocked on 52,000 doors. Anecdotally, many of those conversations have been successful.
But Dr. Nwako says the true test will come later this year, when, hopefully, COVID vaccines become widely available.
"We will know down the line if the people we spoke to, if we changed their minds or not," he says. "But we don’t know yet."