Since President Joe Biden said last week his administration would push door-knocking efforts as one of several initiatives to boost the nation’s vaccination rate, some Republican elected officials and social media posts have suggested that door-to-door initiatives are efforts to force vaccination or could lead to the confiscation of guns or Bibles.
Those claims, for which there is no evidence, add to the misinformation already sowing doubt for some Americans about the coronavirus vaccines. And they come as the effort to increase the nation’s middling vaccination rate takes on new urgency in the effort to prevent the spread of the more contagious delta variant.
Outreach efforts, including door-knocking, have been going on for months across the country. For local groups working to get people vaccinated, door-knocking and neighborhood canvassing have been a key tool in reaching people who have not already sought out the vaccine.
“You could just put a vaccine site and offer [the shots], but you’re not really going to get much bang for your buck,” Paula Ostroff, a community outreach manager for Thomas Jefferson University who has been coordinating on-the-ground canvassing for vaccine clinics, said Thursday. “So this community outreach is really important to bringing people to those sites.”
That face-to-face outreach has been particularly helpful in reaching people who are hesitant about getting immunized, belong to nonwhite or low-income communities, or need to hear about vaccination from a trusted member of their own community, experts say.
In Philadelphia, the city launched an effort called Philly Counts to create a citywide strategy similar to those used for census and voter outreach. New Jersey has conducted in-person efforts in areas with low vaccination rates since May, including door-to-door work and canvassing at parks, festivals, and clinics. Similar door-to-door efforts are expected to soon start across Pennsylvania, said a Department of Health spokesperson.
Most important, public health workers say, such visits provide a one-on-one opportunity to answer people’s questions, debunk misinformation about the vaccines, and address individual concerns. Canvassers can help solve problems, such as finding transportation or a clinic that’s open when the person is free, and also provide information about other pandemic support, such as food or housing assistance, said New Jersey Department of Health spokesperson Nancy Kearney.
“Door-to-door works,” said Ann Cunningham, who has organized vaccination efforts in Coatesville and knocked on doors to let people know about nearby mobile vaccination clinics. “People are afraid, and the easy answers are coming from online misinformation and fearmongering and conspiracy theories. To be able to break through that with a face-to-face conversation is critical.”
It also can “combat the idea that ‘The government is telling me to do this,’” she added. “No, people who understand science are encouraging you to make a decision that is informed by facts.”
Since Biden publicly touted the initiative last week, some local Facebook groups and Philadelphia-area residents have expressed anger, disgust, or suspicion about the idea that someone would come to their door with information about vaccination.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster last week sought to prohibit door-to-door vaccination outreach in his state, while North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn baselessly suggested that the canvassing would lead to the creation of a system to seize citizens’ firearms or Bibles. Tweeted Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan: “What’s next? Knocking on your door to see if you own a gun?”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki countered the rhetoric at a briefing last week, saying that the administration’s effort was made up of grassroots volunteers who aim to hand out accurate public health information about the vaccines.
“It’s something that’s been going on since April,” she said. “And it’s something where we’ve seen an impact in states where there are lower vaccination rates. So it is something we will continue to work with local groups to do.”
Scientific evidence shows the vaccines are effective, safe, and lifesaving in preventing the coronavirus, which has killed more than 600,000 people in the United States and more than four million worldwide. Since the vaccine became available, the spread of the virus has slowed and the number of new cases has plummeted.
Nearly all the people now hospitalized or dying from the virus are unvaccinated, and people without the vaccine make up the vast majority of new infections.
The Biden administration’s vaccination initiative helps states coordinate that outreach with local volunteers, officials, and community leaders such as clergy members — something that’s already happening in many places. It’s relied on local teams, not federal employees, to do the door-knocking, the Associated Press reported in a fact-check.
The canvassing approach quickly became popular in the spring, when hesitancy about the shot and a slowing in the pace of vaccinations became evident.
“The messenger is as important as the message,” acting Physician General Denise A. Johnson said at an April news conference. “Some people want to hear the message from someone who looks like them; some want to hear the message from someone who speaks their language. So our outreach is going to be very broad.”
That’s included efforts by churches, cultural groups, nonprofits, and others, along with hospitals and health departments.
“People are on the fence. And once you start talking to them about their concerns, they are very likely to pivot,” said Ostroff, of Jefferson. “I had one gentleman who started telling me about all his comorbidities ... and I said, ‘But listen, we have a physician right here on site, let’s go talk to the physician.’ And he pivoted and he got his vaccine.”
Cunningham, the organizer in Coatesville, said talking to people face-to-face has been so successful she and her volunteers are planning to take their message to community events, such as a Coatesville carnival, and collaborating with other organizations to do more canvassing.
“We’re not there to force anybody to get the shot. We’re there to help the community,” said Cunningham, who said she and her volunteers are sometimes concerned about going to people’s doors and have received hostile responses. But, she said, “we think that anything that’s worth doing has some risk.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.