FORT WASHINGTON, MARYLAND - The race to get the COVID-19 vaccine into the arms of Americans is now focusing on young adults and adolescents. They're eligible to be vaccinated but not necessarily rushing out to get the shot.
Charlene Mitchell knocks on the doors of homes in an African American neighborhood outside Washington, D.C. She's in search of those who haven't received a COVID-19 vaccination. Mitchell is among thousands of foot soldiers canvassing U.S. communities hoping to encourage hesitant young Americans to get a shot.
"Reaching those who are reluctant requires you talk to them face to face," Mitchell tells VOA. "I try to give young folks science-based information and tell them they shouldn't be scared of the shot."
Mitchell and her mother are part of a group in Prince George's County, Maryland, hoping to encourage reluctant young adults to get vaccinated. "I explain how they can help protect others from getting sick."
Overall, coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths are down more than 70% across the U.S. compared to peak numbers earlier this year. However young adults aged 18-34 now make up more than half of all COVID-19 deaths, according to government statistics. Experts believe the rising infection rates are due to the age group only recently becoming eligible for vaccinations along with greater hesitancy about getting the shots. Until recently, public health outreach targeting younger Americans was less visible as resources and attention were focused on getting older and minority populations vaccinated.
The push to get young people inoculated comes at a time when the number of Americans seeking vaccinations has dropped by a third, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"We are looking for you if you are unvaccinated," said Prince George's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, who launched the county's door-to-door canvassing program after the number of residents coming to walk-in vaccination sites declined.
"Demand has not kept pace as the vaccine has become more widely available, so boosting demand is a top priority for our county," Alsobrooks said at a news conference. The county is using phone calls and texting to encourage residents, especially younger ones, to get vaccinated.
New strategies for vaccine promotion
In other communities, teams of so-called vaccine ambassadors conduct outreach at neighborhood parks, grocery stores, laundry mats and schools. Advocacy groups target locations frequented by young people. "It's no different than voter registration," said Gaylene Kanoyton, founder of Celebrate Healthcare, an organization doing outreach in the Hampton, Virginia. "This is a campaign, and we have two candidates, one is a vaccine for life and COVID for death."
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said he's aware that "a significant proportion of the people who don't want to get vaccinated are young people."
"I try to urge them about the importance of getting vaccinated for their own health and for the overall community," Fauci said in a televised interview.
Researchers believe if healthy young Americans are infected with COVID-19 and show no symptoms, it's likely they can inadvertently infect someone else who could then infect multiple people who become very sick.
U.S. President Joe Biden wants 70% of adults to be partially vaccinated (at least one shot) by the July 4th Independence Day holiday. To reach that goal, 40,000 pharmacies have opened sites where young people can get vaccinated without making an appointment. There're also mobile vaccination units set up in low-income and minority neighborhoods. Currently about 56% of Americans have received at least one shot.
The race to vaccinate the country comes as the U.S. tries to reach "herd immunity," when enough Americans are inoculated against the virus it can no longer spread. Fauci estimates between 70% and 85% of people need to be immune for the country to reach a blanket of protection.
Efforts to convince people to get immunized have been complicated by so called "anti-vax" forces. Many web sites and social media outlets brim with false claims and misinformation urging people to avoid the vaccine.
Last month one of the country's most popular podcast hosts, Joe Rogan, urged young healthy people against getting the vaccine. Rogan's comments drew widespread condemnation, including from the Biden administration. Days later he tried to clarify his statements.
"I'm not an anti-vax person; I believe they're safe and encourage many people to take them," Rogan said.
Many groups are trying to counter anti-vaccine messaging. Immunize Colorado, a non-profit organization, is planning an outreach campaign at county fairs and rodeos to connect with rural conservatives who may be vaccine skeptics.
A Kaiser Family Foundation survey suggests 74% of Americans who have not been vaccinated are worried about serious side effects, while 43% are concerned about missing work. Others said they were taking a wait-and-see attitude or are opposed to getting vaccinated. "A lot of students are acting like the virus really doesn't matter, they don't care," said 21-year-old Jordan Hall from Seattle. "I've seen some people get sick a day or two after getting their shot and I want to wait for more data before I get vaccinated."
As more coronavirus restrictions are being lifted, businesses, sports teams and state governments are offering special promotions to persuade young people and others to get vaccinated. The largest incentives are in Ohio where Governor Mike DeWine announced the state will give away $1 million each to five vaccinated residents aged 18 or older starting May 26.
"I know that some may say, 'DeWine, you're crazy! This million-dollar drawing idea of yours is a waste of money,'" the governor wrote on Twitter. "But truly, the real waste at this point in the pandemic - when the vaccine is readily available to anyone who wants it - is a life lost to COVID-19." The state is using its federal coronavirus relief funds for the lottery payouts.
Ohio is also giving 12-to-17-year-old vaccinated residents a chance to win a four-year scholarship including tuition, room and board, and books to an Ohio public university.
As more fans return to sporting events, the New York Yankees and the New York Mets baseball teams are offering free tickets to fans who get their shots at the ballpark. And ride sharing companies Uber and Lyft are offering free roundtrip rides to vaccination sites until July 4.
Various bars are offering free beer to patrons 21 and older who get their shot, while some restaurants are giving away food to vaccinated customers. "We will give anyone with a vaccine card free french fries for all of May," said Peter Tabibian, the owner of Z-Burger in Washington. "I'm trying to do my part to get us back to normal and I think getting my fries for free can only help."