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Maryland ‘GoVAX’ campaign seeks to aid people reluctant to get coronavirus vaccine to overcome mistrust, cultural barriers

“I am also encouraged by the demand for the vaccine ... It shows responsibility and dedication to the health and safety of those around us,” Scott said.

Pointing to a brighter future with fans at Baltimore Orioles games, backyard cookouts and family visits, community and political leaders launched Maryland’s “GoVAX” campaign Friday to convince people to get the coronavirus vaccine.

State health and political officials have said for months that they would have a culturally sensitive campaign to urge Marylanders from all walks of life to get the shots that will curb the spread of the virus.

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Six weeks after the first doses arrived in Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and Democratic Mayor Brandon M. Scott kicked off the campaign during an event at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. They said they hoped to address a reluctance some people have to getting the vaccine, particularly those who don’t trust the medical system.

“One particular area of focus ... will be tackling the initial vaccine hesitancy that we see in minority populations and underserved communities that have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic,” said Hogan, who wore an Orioles mask and ball cap.

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Scott said “credible information” and trusted messengers are important to convince people to get the vaccine.

“I am also encouraged by the demand for the vaccine ... It shows responsibility and dedication to the health and safety of those around us,” said Scott, wearing a Black Lives Matter mask. He said the city will administer vaccines as rapidly as the supply allows.

They drew upon “trusted leaders” to make the case for the vaccine, both at the kickoff event and in a two-minute video they showed. It opened with the governor, who is white, then segued to messages from Black, Hispanic and Asian pastors, educators and politicians. The video was mostly in English, with brief sections in Spanish and Korean.

The state awarded a $1.1 million contract to Baltimore-based advertising agency GKV to run the campaign.

Vaccinations have skewed disproportionately in favor of white Marylanders so far, and in the Baltimore area, pastors and others are trying various strategies to engage people of color to get the vaccine. Baltimore City, for example, moved its mass vaccination clinic from Port Covington in South Baltimore to Baltimore City Community College in West Baltimore, which has better access to mass transit.

Brig. Gen. Janeen L. Birckhead of the Maryland Army National Guard will lead the state GoVAX outreach effort. The campaign will go to “every corner of every community,” utilizing billboards, radio and television ads and more, Hogan said.

Birckhead, who just returned from leading a presidential inauguration security mission in Washington, said that for her, receiving the vaccine was just like getting a flu shot.

“Please, read the science. If you have questions, speak to your physician or your pharmacist,” she said.

Bishop Walter Scott Thomas, longtime pastor of New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore, said he’s in “one of the higher categories” for the virus.

He considered his options: Get the vaccine. G et sick and possibly die. Or continue to stay at home. “Given those options, there was only one worth taking, and that was the vaccine.”

Enjoyable activities like spending time with family, attending cultural festivals and holding cookouts have been “silenced” by the virus, Thomas said.

Stephanie Miller exits MedStar Health's mobile health center after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine from Kelli McCallum, CRNP, during a mobile vaccine clinic at Cherry Hill Senior Manor Friday morning.
Stephanie Miller exits MedStar Health's mobile health center after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine from Kelli McCallum, CRNP, during a mobile vaccine clinic at Cherry Hill Senior Manor Friday morning. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski, who participated in a vaccine clinical trial, said the vaccines are for everyone’s good, not just for one’s own health.

“It’s not just about me, it’s about all of us. That is the message in taking this vaccine,” he said.

He noted that a Black woman who graduated from UMBC, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, played a key role in vaccine development.

Scott made an oblique reference to why some people of color, in particular, distrust medical institutions. It’s rooted in reality, the mayor said, without giving specifics.

Some point to four decades of federal research on syphilis, starting in 1932 in Tuskegee, Alabama, that was unethical because the participants — all Black men — were not given access to penicillin treatment.

Closer to home, Johns Hopkins Medicine took cancer cells from African American patient Henrietta Lacks in 1951 without her consent or knowledge. Those cells, known as HeLa, have been used in research and countless medical advancements, and are still used today. For years, her relatives never knew and were not compensated.

Seeking to allay fears of immigrants who may be living in the U.S. without legal permission, Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk stressed that citizenship information is not requested of anyone to get the vaccine. And the shots are free, said the delegate, who was born in the Dominican Republic and represents portions of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties.

“You can prevent this if you just, when it’s your turn, you trust it and get the vaccine,” said Peña-Melnyk, a Democrat. “For the first time, we Black and brown people participated in those clinical trials in great numbers. So, please get it. Do it for you, do it for your family, do it for your friends.”

MedStar Community Health Educator Tracy Holcomb pre-fills syringes in between patients during a mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Cherry Hill Senior Manor Friday morning.
MedStar Community Health Educator Tracy Holcomb pre-fills syringes in between patients during a mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Cherry Hill Senior Manor Friday morning. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Hogan said the education campaign is just now starting due to the vaccine supply being slow to arrive.

“It’s just now rolling out because we’re just getting to the point where we have some supply of vaccines getting into the community and we are having that reluctance, so it was very important,” Hogan said.

But a communications expert questioned whether the campaign might actually create more frustration as people seek a product that remains in short supply.

“If you’re dealing with an issue of trust, this kind of campaign might actually work against that, especially if you’re dealing with not having enough vaccine for people,” said Paola Pascual-Ferrà, associate professor of communications at Loyola University Maryland.

Linda Aldoory, a professor of health communications at the University of Maryland, said she was encouraged by the initial crafting of the campaign, especially as it leaned on trusted figures in the community — pastors, community leaders, local celebrities — something that’s “been shown time and time again to be a really effective way to reach the people you want to reach.”

She added that the state should consider on-the-street marketing — delivering flyers or pamphlets through churches or supermarkets, for example — to reach an older population. A frequent request from older residents during community health campaigns, Aldoory said, is for “something I can put in my purse” or take home to pass along to a friend or neighbor.

David Nevins, a public relations executive and president of Nevins & Associates in Baltimore, said some might see a marketing campaign as counterintuitive given how many people are desperately hunting for the few available doses.

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“There’s a huge number of people for whom marketing is obviously not needed,” Nevins said. “But we’re also aware of the fact that there are a number of good people who are nervous and scared and have a bit of trepidation about the efficacy of the vaccine and the ultimate safety of the vaccine.”

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Martha McKenna, a Democratic media consultant, applauded the launch as “a good first step.” But she said the state appears still to be struggling with getting out information about how to sign up for appointments and actually get a dose. The process currently involves not only signing up for local health department wait lists but scouring numerous other providers — pharmacies, clinics, hospitals — for possible appointments.

“We should be making sure people have a 1-800 number they can call if they don’t have the internet,” McKenna said. “Where can you get the vaccine? When can you get the vaccine? How easy is it going to be to get the vaccine? That’s going to be the next step.”

The first two vaccines, produced by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, became available in Maryland in mid-December, initially for hospital workers and residents and staff of nursing homes, which have been hard hit with infections and deaths.

State health officials have been concerned that there initially has been a low vaccination rate, with more people declining the shot than expected. In the first weeks, only 30% of eligible health care workers took their first of two doses of the vaccine, a number that’s now closer to 80%, Hogan said. Earlier this week, Johns Hopkins estimated participation among its employees at about 50%.

“We were a little bit surprised, as were the hospitals, at the reluctance of some of the health care workers,” Hogan said.

The initial rollout also has been slow, with less than half the doses received in Maryland so far actually being administered, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state Department of Health’s estimate of doses used is higher, at 56%.

In the weeks since, eligibility has expanded significantly, now including all residents age 65 and older, first responders, some government officials, long-term care residents and staff, educators and certain essential workers. Many, including seniors, have reported difficulty in securing vaccination appointments through hospitals, pharmacies and local health departments.

Some local health departments aren’t providing shots to all those eligible, instead focusing on those 75 and older.

Baltimore Sun reporters Hallie Miller and Bryn Stole contributed to this article.

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