In the race to vaccinate as much of the North Country population as possible against COVID-19, three pop-up vaccinations will be held this month at Riverside Speedway in Groveton, beginning this Saturday.
The walk-up clinics, organized by the North Country Health Consortium for the North Country Public Health Network, will be held from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. for the next three Saturdays, on Aug. 7, 14, and 21.
No appointment is necessary.
All three vaccines - Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson - will be available.
“Part of our ongoing work through the public health network is to increase that level of convenience for folks to access vaccines,” Kris van Bergen, senior program manager with the consortium, said Wednesday.
Part of that work includes looking at data from the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, which has recently issued vaccinations rates by towns.
“We’re looking to see which of the towns in our region have lower vaccination rates,” said van Bergen. “Northumberland is a great example. Northumberland has a 23.1 percent vaccination rate as of yesterday. The question becomes, firstly, what’s driving those lower vaccination rates, and secondly, how do we increase the convenience of access to vaccines. We know that in the community of Northumberland, the racing season is an important part of their social activity. We just made a call to the racetrack to ask if they would be open to us bringing a team up for the races, and they were very gracious, very welcoming.”
The vaccine team is traveling intentionally with the three vaccines because they are now encountering people who have done some research and said if a specific vaccine is available, they would take it, she said.
They will also make sure that people know how to get a second dose if they need one three or four weeks out.
“It was really easy to vaccine the first half of our population,” said van Bergen. “They were people who were hungry for the vaccine, were strong vaccination proponents, and they leaned into it. We know it’s harder to vaccinate the second half, and that uptake of vaccines really happens at the speed of trust.”
The aim is to make sure that people feel they can ask questions in safe spaces, that the answers they get are coming from trusted sources and are good evidence- and science-based answers, she said.
“They need time to mull that information over,” said van Bergen. “Doing something like being at the races three weeks in a row is an intentional strategy because we know we might talk to people the first two weeks and not see them rolling up a sleeve until the third week. It is really important to be out there frequently and allow people to have multiple conversations.”
Convenience is a factor for those who might be a little more vaccine ambivalent, and so the public health network team, now that the mass clinics have concluded, has been holding small vaccination clinics at community-based events, such as the Lancaster block party this past Saturday, she said.
This Friday, a van will be at the First Friday community event in Littleton to offer vaccines.
“We are also working with employers to hold employer-based events and are reaching out to places like the Mountain View Grand, Trividia, and American Polymers in Colebrook and taking teams there so we can help folks get their vaccine on their coffee break,” said van Bergen.”Our work within the public health infrastructure is about lowering the barriers as much as we possibly can and making it as easy as possible for people to say yes.”
The shift from the mass clinics to the smaller ones also carries a greater educational component.
“What we are finding at our community-based clinics is that we are not necessarily distributing large numbers of vaccine, but we are having critical conversations with community members about vaccination and why its important, about the safety the efficacy of our vaccines, and about the ready availability of vaccines,” said van Bergen. “Along the way, we’re creating other ambassadors for the process. When we measure the success of our clinics, that’s the measuring stick we’re using right now - how are we doing in moving community sentiment to really encourage people to say yes.”
Vaccination rate numbers by towns might not be entirely accurate for some towns, as the numbers are based on 2019 U.S. Census data and do not account for an influx of residents that came to North Country communities last year during the pandemic. It also might not account for those area residents who winter in other states and received vaccinations in those states.
“They’re the best numbers we have right now and we’re using them as guideposts,” said van Bergen. “The team at DHHS continues to fine-tune those metrics and get them as accurate as they can. By and large, when we look at the towns in our region, it feels kind of right. In the towns where people do a lot of things and are in that space frequently - like Lancaster, Berlin, Gorham - the rates are higher. The towns where people essentially sleep and hang out at their houses are the towns with lower rates because there’s less convenience. They lack commercial pharmacies and doctors’ offices. It is especially those towns we are trying to target through the public health network.”
The consortium is actively connecting with town leaders to find out about town events, such as the upcoming Moose Festival on Aug. 14 and 15 in Colebrook, and a team will be back for the Whitefield Lions pancake breakfast in September.
To date, New Hampshire is in the top states with high vaccination rates, but there’s still some distance to go to reach herd immunity, said van Bergen.
The Delta variant of the virus is leading to a big jump n cases in other states.
“So far, the incidence of Delta is still somewhat low in New Hampshire, but it is present, and the better job we do of getting our residents vaccinated the less likely it will take a foothold in our state,” said van Bergen.
A small fraction of those who are vaccinated can still get the virus through a “breakthrough infection,” but the percentage of those vaccinated and testing positive for the virus is about .008 percent, she said.
“The purpose of our vaccines is to prevent serious illness and hospitalization, and it is still doing that, even for folks who get the breakthrough infections,” said van Bergen. “They are not getting super-sick and they’re not being hospitalized. However, they could potentially be spreading the virus to unvaccinated individuals and that is concerning. The vaccine continues to be our best mitigation strategy.”
If communities or employers are holding an event, they can reach out to the consortium and a team would be happy to visit for vaccinations, and there is no minimum number of doses, she said.
“Small businesses are encouraged to give us a call and we will gladly swing by to make sure their folks are covered,” she said. “We are also partnering with organizations like mobile food pantries. We know that for lower-income families it’s really hard to get to those places where the vaccines are offered regularly … Our work is intended to drive to smaller populations. Unlike mass vaccination clinics, we are intentionally looking in those smaller corners where it’s harder to get to the vaccine. That’s our goal for the community.”
One group - all volunteers - remains critical in the region’s vaccination effort, said Annette Cole, public health program manager for the consortium.
“With us since the beginning of this vaccine roll-out and still with us is the Medical Reserve Corps,” she said. “They’ve been a wonderful supplement to the workforce in the North Country as the vaccine effort rolled out and they’re still supporting the public health network’s effort.”
The corps is made up of medical and public health professionals as well as community members with medical or non-medical backgrounds, and they’ve become vaccine ambassadors, said Cole.
“They are very knowledgeable about the benefits of community members getting vaccinated,” she said. “Even if they’re present and not doing a mass vaccination clinic, they are still there talking about it and talking with people in the community.”
The NCHC would not be able to have as many pop-up clinics without the Medical Reserve Corps, said van Bergen.
Some 75 to 80 percent of staff at the clinics are volunteers and more than 100 people are on the corps roster, said van Bergen.
“It’s really expanded over the past year, significantly,” Cole said of the corps. “The North Country Health Consortium provides training along with some of the state partners for those in the Medical Reserve Corps. It’s a really incredible program.”
The corps has helped with logistics and obtaining supplies and some were trained in the state’s record-keeping systems to ensure that vaccinations were logged properly, said van Bergen.
Another benefit is that they know the region and communities, and even if a corps member is not a medical provider, he or she can start a conversation, said Cole.