Health experts pivot game plan as state-run vaccination sites close

Hugo Balta

Nearly 60-percent of New Hampshire residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine; a feat credited to state-run mass vaccination sites that opened seven months ago. But the locations where more than 750-thousand Granite Staters received the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as the Vaccine and Immunization Network Interface (VINI), are now closed.

That has some health experts concerned since New Hampshire lags behind other New England states in people getting their first doses of the vaccine. Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont are doing better with more than 81-percent of eligible residents in the Green Mountain State getting at least one dose.

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reports that in several Upper Valley communities, like Claremont and Newport, the number of residents who have gotten at least one vaccination is below 50-percent, while communities of Hanover and Lebanon have rates above 70-percent.

Health disparities between working-class and affluent communities aren’t the only challenge. The gap in vaccine coverage along racial and ethnic lines persists. While in the past weeks, the number of Black and Hispanic-Latino residents vaccinated has increased White people have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at roughly 1.3 times the rate of Black and 1.2 times the rate of Hispanic-Latino Granite Staters.

“Vaccine hesitancy is a big concern for us,” said Dr. Jose Mercado, the associate epidemiologist at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in an interview with WCAX.

Mercado says hundreds of millions of shots administered across the globe along with dropping infection rates are evidence the vaccine works.

While hesitancy is a factor, the DHHS town-by-town data indicates that at least some of those who remain unvaccinated are not necessarily hesitant to get the shots, but instead lack access to them reports Valley News.

COVID-19 vaccination effort now moves into local communities

There are hundreds of locations across the state where you can get vaccinated.

Health experts like the New Hampshire Medical Society (NHMS) and advocates for older Americans like AARP NH are encouraging people to make the personal decision to get the vaccine based on good information from their health care providers through one on one conversations.

“The COVID-19 vaccines are now more plentiful and accessible than ever”, says Pamela Dube, Associate State Director of Communications for AARP New Hampshire of the more than 480 sites throughout the state. “Rural areas, working-class communities, folks without transportation now have much more accessibility.”

“There’ll be a lot of more things like the mobile van efforts, and the local community efforts, and doing kind of target pop-up things,” said Jim Potter, NHMS Executive Vice President, and CEO. “Particularly in communities that we know historically have been underserved or disadvantaged.”

AARP NH and NHMS are partnering on a social media campaign to galvanize unvaccinated New Hampshire residents to engage with their own healthcare providers to get information about the COVID-19 vaccines.

The family reunion initiative that began in late June will continue through September with the message the “COVID-19 vaccines allow for all kinds of safe (and long overdue!) family reunions.”

As the COVID-19 vaccination allocation process moves from public to private, Todd Fahey, state director of AARP New Hampshire, favors more intimate conversations with healthcare providers. “We’re talking about smaller venues versus mass vaccination sites,” said Fahey. “And we’re just talking about a smaller number of people to target so that those folks have the best information available to them to make the decision.”

Dube suggests residents visit to find a site near them. She did a test run using the site and found more sites (and nearer to her home) than what was made available to her by the state-run facilities.

New Hampshire health officials say the state’s battle against COVID-19 is heading in the right direction, but efforts to increase the number of people getting vaccinated needs to continue.

While hospitalizations remain steady, the average number of deaths has gone down to less than one per day.

“Any death is preventable with vaccination,” state epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan told WMUR. “I continue to stress the importance of high levels of vaccination in our community for everybody’s protection.”

Publisher’s Note: NHLN and AARP New Hampshire are partners in best serving the Hispanic-Latino community.