City targets vaxing locals

·6 min read

May 9—LAWRENCE — Local people may not need to wake up in the middle of the night to book a COVID-19 vaccination appointment online like many did when the demand was at its peak — but in Lawrence officials are still struggling to get shots in arms.

According to new data released by the mayor's office, 65.5% of Lawrencians have yet to receive a vaccination. The statistics, accurate as of April 28, indicate that 34.5% of the city's residents have received at least one shot — either a first dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, or the single Johnson & Johnson shot.

Local health leaders say Lawrence organizations have banded together in an effort to bring shots to those who haven't gotten them, in hopes the numbers will begin to trend in the right direction. This is happening as Gov. Charlie Baker decided to close four of the state's seven mass vaccination sites at the end of June. The sites closing are at Gillette Stadium, the Doubletree hotel in Danvers, the Natick Mall and the Hynes Convention Center in Boston.

"Until we all get out of this, none of us are out of this," Jonathan Isaacson, CEO of GEM Group and chairman of the Lawrence Partnership's COVID-19 task force, said of the pandemic and the need for people to be vaccinated.

"The key is to meet people where they're at (with vaccines) and give people a helping hand to step through the doorway," he said. "Some people are going to do it faster and some people are going to take more time. It takes a village and has to be a team effort."

Isaacson is a member of a task force that includes leaders from local businesses and nonprofits, and health professionals from Lawrence General Hospital, Greater Lawrence Family Health Center and other groups. The task force was formed at the beginning of the pandemic, working through the Lawrence Partnership organization, to help the city get through the COVID-19 crisis.

Isaacson, who is a member of the Lawrence General Hospital Board of Trustees, said the task force's latest challenge is overcoming vaccine hesitancy. To do that, it is crucial that the task force and city work with health care providers, he said.

With several locations across the city dedicated to serving residents, Greater Lawrence Family Health Center has no shortage of vaccination appointments available, according to Rich Napolitano, the center's senior vice president and chief strategy officer. The center is now taking extra steps to make it easier for residents to become vaccinated — visiting local businesses, churches and schools to make sure every resident who wants a shot can get one.

"Our targeted outreach and approach in the city of Lawrence right now, because the majority of our patients are from Lawrence, is to work with businesses and churches," Napolitano said. "We're finding through the feedback we're getting ... that people are saying they wouldn't have had access to the vaccine otherwise."

He said the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center has already linked up with two businesses — GEM Group and New Balance.

Isaacson's GEM Group held a vaccination clinic April 21. The company has long been involved in pandemic-related issues, pivoting from making promotional products before the health crisis to fast-paced production of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gowns, masks and sanitizer.

Isaacson said what he saw happen at his GEM Group is what the Lawrence Partnership task force is trying to convey elsewhere in Lawrence.

"We've run webinars to make sure (people) have enough information about the vaccine," he said. "There were health questions, but also questions that were patently not true — like 'will the vaccine alter my DNA?' — so we had a trusted leader from Lawrence General, the health center and a labor attorney discuss those things. That webinar is on the website for people to access."

Similar educational outreach happened at a New Balance clinic on April 30 when 140 of that company's employees and some of their family members received Pfizer vaccines. The company's president, Joe Preston, also came to the sneaker manufacturer's Lawrence location to receive a shot, according to Napolitano. He said Preston applauded the health center for cutting through red tape and "simplifying the process" for locals.

After the clinic, a nurse from the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center met with vaccine-hesitant New Balance employees to calm their fears about getting the second dose, making them aware of the importance of that dose and dispelling common myths about the shot.

The nurse, Katherine Tamayo, spoke to New Balance employees at a bilingual meeting that was scheduled to "dispel concerns so those people felt comfortable getting their vaccine," Napolitano said. New Balance executives said the message given at the meeting was a "godsend" to help change employees' minds when it came to vaccine hesitancy, according to Napolitano.

Lawrence General Hospital has also been a major player in the city's coronavirus fight since the start of the pandemic. The hospital continues to offer the vaccine and provide education about it.

The hospital is ready to provide vaccinations to residents who come to Lawrence after being shut out of one of the mass vaccination sites being closed through the governor's order, according to Ben French, the hospital's director of marketing and communications.

"We have capacity and are able to take on the volume," French said. "We can take on the volume and expect additional volume ... when Pfizer is expanded to teenagers."

The hospital has administered close to 90,000 vaccine doses so far, French said.

In recent weeks, both Lawrence General and the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center have launched bilingual campaigns to let residents know the vaccine is not only free and available, but safe.

Lawrence General partners with the city's Spanish-language radio stations through Costa Eagle Media Group to do interviews with nurses, doctors and other hospital employees who discuss the vaccine and share their stories about getting vaccinated.

"The big message there in regard to reach is that we need to continue to be proactive with providing education that will help lessen vaccine hesitancy in the community," Napolitano said. "Bringing vaccines to churches, companies and schools is going to make a huge difference in how many people we can vaccinate in the city."

The family health center is reaching out to school districts to let them know the center has Pfizer vaccines available, Napolitano said. With an approval of the Pfizer vaccine for teenagers expected soon, the family health center is working with Central Catholic High School to set up a clinic for 16- and 17-year-olds, Napolitano said.

The governor said Massachusetts is on track to meet its goal of vaccinating at least 4.1 million people by the end of June, which he called "an incredible achievement."

Local leaders, though, are counting small victories as they happen.

"Every person who might not have gotten vaccinated and gets vaccinated at one of these clinics is a victory," Isaacson said. "It's going to be one victory at a time if we're going to help to solve the problem."