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Vaccination rates lagging in Detroit

Detroit, Michigan.
Rudy Malmquist
Getty Images
Detroit, Michigan.

Vaccination rates in the City of Detroit are lagging behind the rest of the state. While Michigan’s rate is around 55%, Detroit’s is closer to 30%. As part of its effort to boost vaccination numbers… the city is paying people to knock on residents’ doors and tell them how they can get inoculated.

Detroit is trying to improve vaccination rate through canvassing teams

31-year-old Nora Rodriguez walks down tree-lined Hubbard Street, holding a stack of pamphlets, moving from house to house.

Rodriguez is a bilingual Vaccine Ambassador for Congress of Communities. The non-profit is one of three groups hired by the City of Detroit with Federal Emergency Management Agency money to do this kind of on-the-ground outreach.

"So basically what we're doing is we're going door to door." Says Rodriguez, "And we have an app here that we're using. And we're letting families know that they can just like get the vaccination, there's ways that you can get vaccinated without actually getting an appointment."

The city’s goal is to let residents know that there’s a clinic in the neighborhood where they can get a free COVID shot. Officials also want to give people a chance to talk face-to-face about vaccines with someone from their community.

Rodriguez says Latino people are hesitant about getting the vaccine for a number of reasons. Some undocumented people are afraid they might be reported to immigration authorities. And young people, around her age, often have beliefs taken from social media.

"They feel like it's to target people and to kill populations off and stuff like that, but it's not it's not anything to do with that."

That’s why Rodriguez often shares her personal story. She got COVID in April of 2020 and passed it along to her mom. Now they’re both vaccinated to protect themselves against re-infection.

Rodriguez knocks on the door of a white duplex with overgrown grass. There’s an eviction notice taped to the window but Rodriguez isn’t deterred. She was trained to try every door.

"So sometimes I guess you might get somebody that might not want to answer the door for something like this. These are things that may be barriers."

Of the 20,000 houses canvassers have approached since this initiative began last month, Detroit officials say about 70 percent of residents don’t open up. When that happens, Rodriguez leaves a pamphlet on the door knob. It shows the hours, contact info and location of the nearest place to get vaccinated. It also gives a phone number where people can call and ask a nurse any questions they might have about vaccines.

When someone does answer the door, Rodriguez says the canvassers are not supposed to try to convince them to get vaccinated.

"So basically, you know, avoid debating or arguments, you know, by basically giving them a smile, give them the information, and 'I understand you and I respect your opinion.' And here's the information if in the future, you want to change your mind. If somebody is not into the vaccination, that's all you can really do."

City data shows that about one in five residents have no plans to get the COVID vaccine. But that’s not who this canvassing is for. The City says these door knockers are trying to reach people who are on the fence.

On our outing, Rodriguez interacts with only three people. Two of them are Spanish-speaking seniors who say they’re vaccinated. The third is 50-year-old Manuel Gonzalez. When Rodriguez approaches his front gate, Gonzalez is sitting on his porch wearing a t-shirt with Eminem on it.

Rodriguez: How are you doing today? I got an Eminem shirt too. I love him. And it's just like that, black and white... I work with, within the city. I'm a resident here in southwest Detroit. Did you know that there is free places where you can get vaccinations?

Gonzalez: The shot?

R: Yeah. For COVID-19

G: Does that work?

R: Well, I got my vaccine, and I've done a lot of research on it. I was really hesitant about it as well.

G: Because every time when the flu shots come around - when I took flu shot. I get real sick.

R: I understand. You know in my family we have different dynamics and different people who think different things.

G:My stepdad he he got his two shots.

R: Oh did he?

G: Yeah, He got the second shot he got he start having shakes.

R: Oh really.

G: Yeah. And then when he told me that I said I don't want that shot.

Symptoms from the COVID-19 vaccines usually mean that the shot is working. While other side effects do happen, they are extremely rare. For example, less than point-zero-zero-one percent of people who got Moderna or Pfizer vaccines reported severe allergic reactions.

After talking for more than five minutes, Gonzalez says he’s still worried about vaccine side effects, but he’ll probably get a shot so he can apply for a warehouse job that he heard requires vaccine cards.

"Because when they ask for the card," says Gonzales, "If I don't have the card, I don't have a job. So eventually, when I go see my doctor, if he she asked for I probably get my first shot when I go there."

When Rodriguez walks away from doors like this one, she has no way of knowing if the people she talked to will actually get vaccinated. But she hopes she’s made a difference.

"A lot of people I've known have gotten the COVID like myself as well. And some have unfortunately not made it. So I think the bigger impact for me, you know, is to go door to door because that is worth every, every door is worth something, it's worth somebody's life."

Currently, the City of Detroit is only canvassing in the neighborhoods surrounding its six walk-in vaccinations clinics. In the coming weeks, canvassers will expand to other neighborhoods, with the goal of eventually knocking on every door in the city.