To increase vaccinations, Prince William County took a unique approach.

PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY – As of Monday, 28.7% of Virginia’s population rank as fully vaccinated. While that’s a good step, there are still some challenges. In Prince William County, it’s been difficult to convince older residents to get the vaccine.

A total of 185,798 people in the county had received their first COVID vaccination as of Monday. The highest age concentration for the vaccine came in at 50 to 59 with 36,828 participants.

However, numbers dropped on either side of that age bracket. For example, those 80 and older accounted for the lowest number of vaccine recipients, even though they were in the first phase of the rollout. Those 80 and over in Prince William County accounted for about 3% of the current rollout – 7,163 doses.

Compare that to teens from 16 to 19. In the last two weeks, 3,000 more Prince William teens took their first dose than those 80 and over.

But how do you convince people to take a vaccine they’re afraid of? Prince William officials had a solution.

A Creative Approach

Most commuters in Prince William County do so by car. In fact, in 2019, 75.3% of residents normally drove alone and 11.5% carpooled.

A total of 4.9% of residents traveled via public transit options, excluding taxis.

In the county, the average commute spanned approximately 40 minutes. That’s five minutes more than the average Washington, D.C. commute time and more than an 11-minute difference from the state average.

While most people could theoretically drive to get their vaccine, some people had trouble accessing it. That’s why the Prince William Health District chose to take the vaccine to them.

Sean Johnson, Prince William Health District’s community engagement coordinator, led the approach.

“Sean Johnson has been boots-on-the-ground in working with our outreach,” said Kathy Stewart, Prince William Health District communications specialist. “We formed a local community engagement group in the middle of March to work and come up with ways to reach the hard-to-reach in the Greater Prince William area.”

Johnson’s decades-long experience in preventing disaster came back into play when the coronavirus hit.

“As a former 9/11 firefighter in New York, Sean Johnson has employed one of the tactics his firefighters used when there was a fatal fire. They would set up a table in that neighborhood and teach people about fire safety,” Stewart said. “Sean has been using that model, going into neighborhoods to get people signed up and get vaccine appointments. Some people may not have the skills to get signed up for various reasons and he and his various teams help make that possible.”

Johnson and his team regularly go out into the community to talk with people about the virus, as well as the benefits of the vaccine.

Where the People Are

From Woodbridge to Manassas, Johnson and his team set up their booth at a variety of locations. They visited Bayvue Apartments, the Dar Alnoor Mosque and even the local Boys and Girls Club.

The team also went to the locations at different times of the day for several hours at a time, ranging from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The wide range of locations, as well as providing both morning and evening hours, was intentional.

“My previous incident management experiences throughout the years – and being related with disaster – went something like this: [if a tragedy] happens in a person’s hometown or in their neighborhood, that’s when you’ve really got their attention,” Johnson said. “This vaccine and COVID-related engagement with the public has been very diverse. It’s not like it’s at one locale. It’s throughout the entire county or jurisdiction. So what’s the best way to get to those who can’t basically come to you? Or maybe they don’t have the technology. Maybe they don’t know how to sign up because of language barriers. I just used experience I’ve had before in this and just decided that the best thing to do was go to the people.”

And go to the people, he did.

“In the discussions with the health district in our meetings, we’ve tried to figure out how we can get to those who are most vulnerable, where the highest rate of COVID activity has been with positive ratings,” Johnson said. “A lot of times, unfortunately, it’s in communities that are unserved. So we used data to try to figure out where these locations would be.”

Scouting Locations

Using a mobile clinic site setup, the team looked into areas where they could vaccinate anywhere from 300 to 450 people. One of those sites was the local Boys and Girls Club, which has two gymnasiums in the building.

“One [gym] could be used for vaccines and one could be used for post-vaccination,” Johnson said. “Plus, the parking is there. There’s so many logistical things that you have to think about. And then the mere fact that we need to return – depending on the vaccines used – between 21 and 28 days to do a second dose.”

Parking and timing were not the only factors that the group carefully pondered.

“We had to consider, what will it be like a month from now with the weather? Is it going to be hot? Is it handicapped accessible?” Johnson said. “So there’s a lot of logistical factors that go into it before we choose a place and a facility and how they’ll work with us because they have to open and close it as well.”

Another recent vaccination event took place in a parking lot in Dale City. The team set up tents and got to work.

“We basically built a tent city and used volunteers to help district nurses to run that,” Johnson said. “We did 300 doses, but we set up 200 other people for appointments at other clinics when we ran out of the doses.”

The Future of the Vaccine Rollout

With just shy of 43% of Virginians vaccinated, there’s still a bit to go to reach the sweet spot of 70%. That’s when experts estimate the possibility of herd immunity.

However, reaching the remaining 27% of the goal has its challenges. Johnson predicted a shift, leaning more toward the vaccination methods he and his team offered.

“We think that mobile clinics [are] going to be the future,” Johnson said. “That the mass clinic events probably are not going to be as highly supported because there are people who already have reservations about going to such places because there’s a large crowd and they have to travel to it.”

Johnson further encouraged individuals to continue preregistering for the COVID-19 vaccine.

“This is a good opportunity [over the] next couple of months to get vaccinated if you can and if you haven’t preregistered,” Johnson said.

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com