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Black Church's Street Team Encourages Residents To Get Vaccinated

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Connecticut, a historically Black church is sending teenagers door-to-door over the summer to encourage residents to get the COVID vaccine. Connecticut has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, but it is a very different story in the town of Waterbury. Here's Ali Oshinskie from Connecticut Public Radio.

ALI OSHINSKIE, BYLINE: Elise Taylor is hitting 10,000 steps a day, a lot of them on hills and up to front doors to ask...

ELISE TAYLOR: Hi, ma'am. Are you interested in taking the COVID-19 vaccine?

OSHINSKIE: This person already got hers.

ELISE: Oh, great. So I think we left the information flyer - yeah, right at your door. So if you do know anyone who's not vaccinated, you can share it with them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right. Thank you.

ELISE: Thank you.

OSHINSKIE: Taylor is 15, and she's part of the Grace Baptist Church street team. Every weekday morning, she and seven other teens pair up and walk around Waterbury, knocking on doors to have conversations like that one.

ELISE: I'll try to do, you know, my little bit. But we do have people back at the church that will, you know, walk them through their worries.

OSHINSKIE: The process starts with the street team. Residents get a knock and a flyer. The teens were trained to ask a few questions and take down a phone number if there's interest. Someone from a phone bank can call later to arrange an in-home shot or transportation to a vaccine clinic. Grace Baptist pays the teens $15 an hour with funds from a state vaccine equity program. The pastor, Kristopher Reese, says his church is trying to make it as easy as possible for Waterbury residents to get their shot, especially in Black communities.

KRISTOPHER REESE: My church, I think, is maybe 90% vaccinated. Why? Because their leader, their pastor, has been pushing it.

OSHINSKIE: Now Reese is trying to be that leader beyond his congregation. Connecticut ranks near the top for the percentage of residents that are fully vaccinated, but Waterbury lags behind. The numbers are especially low among the city's Black residents. Just around a third are fully immunized.

REESE: You have to be realistic about the challenges because of the simple fact that for every positive message, there's a hundred negative messages.

OSHINSKIE: Still, Pastor Reese says a message coming from the oldest Black Baptist church in the city may be more persuasive with Black residents here. He also brought in the president of the Greater Waterbury NAACP to coordinate the effort. Ginne-Rae Clay says the vaccine hesitant need more than an appointment.

GINNE-RAE CLAY: People want to talk about it. They want to know your experience if you've had the vaccination.

OSHINSKIE: Clay isn't expecting 14- and 15-year-olds to change minds. She sees the teens, who are mostly Black and from the community, as some of the best people to start the conversation about vaccination. And she says they are not here to judge or shame anyone.

CLAY: But continue to have the conversation with those folks that are not going to get the vaccine.

OSHINSKIE: The surge of the delta variant makes the street team's work all the more urgent. But Elise Taylor says she doesn't always get the chance to have a conversation. Many don't open the door, and some that do say they are dead set against the vaccine.

ELISE: The only thing that you can do is just say, hey, here's the information. Take it if you will. And when you judge people for their position on a certain thing, it doesn't push them towards your sides. All it does is make them believe their beliefs to a greater extent.

OSHINSKIE: It's too early to say if Taylor and the street team are having an impact. They plan to knock on most of Waterbury's 40,000 doors by the end of August, each time trying to start a conversation that hopefully ends in booking an appointment.

For NPR News, I'm Ali Oshinskie in Waterbury, Conn.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVIL NEEDLE & CHROMONICCI'S "FIRST CLASS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.