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Detroit sends canvassers door-to-door to increase COVID-19 vaccine rates

Beenish Ahmed
Michigan Radio

When Governor Whitmer followed CDC guidance to lift the state mask mandate for adults who have been fully immunized last week, nearly half of Michigan residents had not been vaccinated. The rates have remained even lower in Detroit, where just overone-third of eligible residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to nearly 65 percent in the rest of Wayne County.

As infectious disease experts worry about the spread of the virus caused by unvaccinated people defying state orders and going unmasked, the city of Detroit is continuing efforts to reach out to residents by sending canvassers door-to-door, with $1.2 million in state funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The outreach has focused on neighborhoods near six city-run walk-in vaccination clinics and in parts of the city with low vaccination rates, but, according to city officials, the plan is to eventually reach every Detroit household. 

As Nora Rodriguez makes her way down Hubbard Street in Southwest Detroit, she gets a warm reception at the next house from a 74-year-old woman named Maria Peña who comes to the door behind a waddling, sand-colored shihtzu. Rodriguez is an outreach worker with the Congress of Communities, a local nonprofit that is one of several community organizations involved in the informational campaign. Peña tells Rodriquez in Spanish that she’s been vaccinated for three months. 

Rodriguez logs the information into a map-based app that the city is using to track the progress of canvassers dispatched across the city. According to those metrics, only about a third of knocks have resulted in conversations like the one Rodriguez had with Peña. She makes her way down two blocks before she has another interaction with a resident. 

Credit Beenish Ahmed / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Maria Pena is a Southwest Detroit resident who told canvassers that she's already been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Manuel Gonzales is sitting on his front porch when Rodriguez calls out to him. She comments on his Eminem T-shirt before shifting to ask him about the vaccine. Gonzales has a lot of questions about its efficacy, and tells Rodriguez he’s anxious about the COVID-19 vaccine because he’s experienced side-effects from the flu shot in the past. “That's why I kind of like, why I don’t want to take that shot. Because I ain't trying to get sick,” he tells her. 

Rodriguez encourages him to put his questions about the COVID-19 vaccine to his doctor, and tells him she was hesitant about the shot at first too, but ended up getting it to safeguard her mother and other members of her family. She hands an informational flyer to Gonzales about a vaccination clinic just around the corner from his house, but she doesn’t push him to get the shot. 

“I don't want to argue,” she explains when she’s back on the sidewalk. “That's not what we're here for. The vaccination is really important, [but] if [people] don't want to get it, that's their viewpoint. I respect it. I will make sure they get that information and just in case they change their minds.” 

And that’s the mission, according to Vicky Kovari, who is heading Detroit’s outreach campaign. “Our goal is to get as many people vaccinated as soon as possible with equity front and center,” she says. “We're not ignoring any neighborhoods and we're really intent on making sure people know this is easy, it's safe, and it's important.” 

Kovari headed Detroit’s census campaign last year. She’s using the same approach to get the word out about the shot, and focusing in on neighborhoods with the lowest vaccination rates. Kovari says those tend to be high-poverty areas with transient populations. 

“One of the big lessons we learned from the census is to go where people are,” she explains.

But not all canvassers involved in the program have seemed motivated to reach people. 

During a door-to-door campaign staffed by a community organization called Better Men Outreach, near the corner of Robeson and 7 Mile, Michigan Radio saw canvassers leave information hanging from door knobs without knocking. In one instance, a resident came to the door to speak to a canvasser who had already made his way two houses down the street. 

Credit Beenish Ahmed / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Nora Rodriguez and Fabiola Benegas, outreach workers with the Southwest Detroit organization Congress of Communities, input  vaccine canvassing data into an app.

But for Nora Rodriguez, the canvasser who has joined the city-led effort through Congress of Communities, the work she’s doing feels both pivotal and personal. Rodriguez contracted COVID-19 early on in the pandemic and believes she passed the virus on to her mother. As she makes her way down Hubbard Street, she thinks about how she used to drive down the street with her mother, admiring its taffy-colored houses and singing along to the radio. 

“That was our thing, like mother-daughter time,” she says, adding that it's memories like these “that you can't get back if you lose your parent or you lose somebody you love.... And with my mother, that's a memory that I want to keep continuing with her.” 

Rodriguez thinks of all the people in her community who may not get to make new memories with their loved ones because of the deadly toll of COVID-19. And then she knocks on another door.

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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