Dr. Patricia Doyle’s patients come from a wide swath of western Maine, north of Sugarloaf and west of Moosehead Lake, that stretches to the Canadian border.
Except for some of the oldest and most vulnerable, most didn’t rush out to get the COVID-19 vaccine when they became eligible, she said.
But because her practice, the Jackman Community Health Center, is relatively small, she and others have been doing regular outreach – personal calls where they can connect with individuals away from the noise of cable TV or Facebook, to answer questions and allay fears.
“We still get plenty of ‘no’s,’ but the most frequent thing we hear from people is they are taking a wait-and-see approach,” Doyle said. “They say, ‘I’ll get back to you when I’m ready.’ So it’s more hesitancy more than flat-out no’s. And people do get back to us.”
Doyle and other physicians from across the state are hoping to extend that outreach beyond their own practices. They have partnered on an educational effort with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund, the Maine Public Health Association and the Maine Community Action Partnership that will feature short videos promoted on social media talking about the benefits of vaccinations.
They also will host a virtual forum on COVID-19 vaccines called “Ask Maine Doctors,” at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Those interested in participating can register online at: https://mecap.org/forum.
The campaign is designed to reach Mainers who, for whatever reason, have not yet gotten vaccinated against COVID-19. Although Maine’s rate of vaccination is the highest among all states, vaccinations have leveled off in recent weeks and there are some signs that younger individuals might be more hesitant or reluctant, which could extend the pandemic.
In Somerset County, where most of Doyle’s patients reside, the rate of vaccination is about 35 percent, which is far below the state’s average. She said the biggest hesitancy she hears is about side effects, even though they have been exceedingly rare in the nearly six months that vaccinations have been in use.
“I do think people are waiting to see if there is some bad that’s going to happen to people who get vaccinated,” she said, adding that the brief pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after cases of rare but serious blood clots were detected did reduce public confidence.
Dr. Noah Nesin, chief medical officer at Penobscot County Health Care in Bangor, who also will participate in Tuesday’s forum, said as the vaccination effort shifts, messaging becomes even more critical.
“We’ve mostly gotten through the eager and the willing and now are trying to reach people who are hesitant,” he said. “I think it’s really important that we honor people’s agency and accept them where they are and just provide good information. What I share is that the risks of becoming infected are much higher than the risks of getting vaccinated. Not just the risk to yourself and the people with whom you come in contact, but the risk to people everywhere if we can’t manage this pandemic and if more variants emerge and become more virulent or vaccine-resistant.”
People’s reasons for not wanting the vaccine or for wanting to wait vary, but studies have shown that the best sources of information for these individuals aren’t politicians or celebrities, it’s people with whom they have a trusted relationship. Nesin said politically motivated feelings and misinformation are still challenging to navigate.
“I still hear a lot of misinformation that’s being spread,” he said. “And people are asking these questions seriously, so we need to answer them seriously as well.”
As the vaccination effort continues to evolve, the last piece could involve administering shots directly at primary care offices. To date, most doctors’ offices haven’t gotten many doses of vaccine because they can’t handle a large volume of vaccinations in a short period of time or because they don’t have cold storage capabilities needed for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. That’s why the state prioritized larger practices, hospitals and mass sites, as well as pharmacies.
But primary care doctors historically have been the main link between vaccinations and patients, and they will be leaned on heavily soon to help close the gap.