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St. Louis Health Workers Target Skeptical Patients 'One Vaccine At A Time'

Missouri National Guardsman Herbert Lin injects resident Patricia Bolden with the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, while  administering to the elderly at the  Cambridge Senior Living Center in St. Louis on Thursday, March 4, 2021.
Bill Greenblatt
Patricia Bolden receives the Johnson & Johnson vaccine from Missouri National Guardsman Herbert Lin at Cambridge Senior Living Center in St. Louis in March.

St. Louis health officials are trying to persuade one patient at a time to get the COVID-19 vaccine as the state’s vaccination rate falls.

Instead of relying on large-scale clinics that distribute thousands of shots a day as it once did, the city’s health department is working with smaller community organizations and clinics to persuade skeptical patients to get the shot.

“Our goal at this point is to make sure we’re hearing the community and we’re doing our very best to dispel any myths and misinformation that are circulating,” said Dr. Fred Echols, acting health director. “[We] provide them not only with accurate information but with the opportunity to receive the vaccine.”

Daily doses administered in Missouri have fallen 85% since their peak in April. About 8,000 people in Missouri are getting the vaccine each day.

The health department is working with community health clinics, the Boys & Girls Clubs, STL Juntos, Casa de Salud and other groups, Echols said. It’s making an effort to partner with groups that serve Black people, Latinos and immigrants who have less trust in vaccines and health officials than white people do, he said.

Most events in downtown St. Louis or on the city’s south side didn’t attract many non-white residents, he said.

“We have to make sure we’re being intentional about being present in those minority communities to make sure they feel comfortable receiving the vaccine,” Echols said.

The health department also is holding vaccination events in St. Louis schools to better inform residents about the vaccine, he said.

Meanwhile, about 700 Missourians are testing positive for the coronavirus each day, a number that is approaching the level officials saw in early spring.

The effort to persuade one person at a time to get the vaccine is slow but rewarding, said Dr. Melissa Tepe, chief medical officer at Affinia Healthcare in St. Louis.

Affinia health workers are discussing the vaccine with patients who come in for other appointments, she said.

“It’s not going to be the volume of a mass site ever, but it is going to be very meaningful,” Tepe said. “You’re going to have a one-on-one conversation with someone you trust.”

Patients can then receive the vaccine right at the clinic after their appointment, “without any additional barriers like appointments or transportation or anything like that,” she said.

Affinia clinics are now distributing around 200 shots a week, compared with about 1,000 a few months ago, she said.

Vaccines are now widely available across St. Louis, Tepe said. Many people who wanted the vaccine have already sought out and received their shots. But the patients who haven’t decided to get the shot are much more distrustful, she said.

But convincing even one person that the vaccine is safe and effective can have a ripple effect if they have a positive experience or learn something they can tell their friends and families, she said.

“Each of these individuals are going to add up over time,” Tepe said. “It’s definitely more of a ground game now, one vaccine at a time.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter:@petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.