With Mass Vaccination Sites Winding Down, It’s All About the ‘Ground Game’

The shift away from high-volume centers is an acknowledgment of the harder road ahead: a highly targeted push, akin to get-out-the-vote efforts, to persuade the reluctant to get shots.


By Sheryl Gay Stolberg

NEWARK — There were only six tiny vials of coronavirus vaccine in the refrigerator, one Air Force nurse on duty and a trickle of patients on Saturday morning at a federally run mass vaccination site here. A day before its doors shut for good, this once-frenetic operation was oddly quiet.

The post-vaccination waiting room, with 165 socially distanced chairs, was mostly empty. The nurse, Maj. Margaret Dodd, who ordinarily cares for premature babies at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, had already booked her flight home. So had the pharmacist, Heather Struempf, who was headed back to nursing school in Wyoming.

Across the country, one by one, mass vaccination sites are shutting down. The White House acknowledged for the first time on Tuesday that it would not reach President Biden’s goal of getting 70 percent of American adults at least partly vaccinated by July 4. The setback stems from hesitancy in certain groups, slow takeup by young adults and a swirl of other complex factors.

The Newark site, which closed on Sunday, was the last of 39 federally operated mass vaccination centers that administered millions of shots over five months in 27 states — a major turning point in the effort Mr. Biden described last week as “one of the biggest and most complicated logistical challenges in American history.” Many state-run sites are also closed or soon will be.

The nation’s shift away from high-volume vaccination centers is an acknowledgment of the harder road ahead, as health officials pivot to the “ground game”: a highly targeted push, akin to a get-out-the-vote effort, to persuade the reluctant to get their shots.

Mr. Biden will travel to Raleigh, N.C., on Thursday to spotlight this time-consuming work. It will not be easy — as Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the president’s coronavirus response coordinator, discovered last weekend, when he went door-knocking in Anacostia, a majority-Black neighborhood in Washington, with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser.

In an interview on Tuesday, Dr. Fauci said he and the mayor spent 90 minutes talking to people on their front porches. But even with a celebrity doctor at the door and the prospect of giveaways at the vaccination center in a high school a few blocks away, many remained hesitant. Dr. Fauci said he persuaded six to 10 people to get their shots, though he did encounter some flat refusals.

“We would say, ‘OK, come on, listen: Get out, walk down the street, a couple of blocks away. We have incentives, a $51 gift certificate, you can put yourself in a raffle, you could win a year’s supplies of groceries, you could win a Jeep,’” Dr. Fauci said. “And several of them said, ‘OK, I’m on my way and I’ll go.’”

But in Newark, where more than three-quarters of the population is Black or Latino, the numbers tell the story. In Essex County, N.J., which includes Newark, 70.2 percent of adults have been vaccinated. But Essex also includes wealthy suburbs; in Newark, the figure is 56 percent, Judith M. Persichilli, the state’s health commissioner, said in an interview.

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