Visit the Essential Blends Hair Studio in Camden on any given day and you’ll find a bustling barber shop humming with music and chatter about daily life. Bring up the COVID-19 vaccine and the room will suddenly go quiet, save the buzzing of hair clippers.
Rankines is one of 15 Camden barbers recruited by the Center for Family Services, a local nonprofit, and Rutgers University-Camden to act as a trusted messenger. The thinking goes: Someone like Rankines is more likely to convince his neighbor or customer who is on the fence about the vaccine than an incentive, which new data finds weren’t as effective at boosting vaccinations as once thought.
Smith, who is Black, has a list of widely quoted concerns: The vaccine was rolled out too quickly; you can still get sick even if you’re fully vaccinated (though breakthrough cases are rare and you are less likely to get seriously ill); no vaccine is FDA-approved (except for emergency use); and the medical community has a history of neglecting and taking advantage of Black communities.
But then his concerns take a conspiratorial turn. Smith said he’s heard the vaccine makes you infertile, has read injection sites were magnetized. It reinforces his belief that governments and pharmaceutical companies don’t have his best interests at heart.
Just last week, Mayor Vic Carstarphen walked through city neighborhoods, promoting the vaccine on a bullhorn. The city lagged behind the rest of the state in the early months of the vaccine rollout. At the moment, the city has delivered at least one shot to 60% of adults over 18. That number stood at 55% a month ago.
Megan Lepore, with the Center for Family Services, said the need to educate adults on the vaccine is more important than ever as children return to school and find themselves more vulnerable to the delta variant. “If we’re not already preparing adults to make the right decisions for themselves, how can we think that they are going to be armed with the right information to make that decision for their kids?”
“To effect change, really encourage people to take up vaccination behaviors, we have to meet them where they’re at,” argues expert David Rapp. “And then think about what are the core issues that are making them resistant to … get vaccinated.”
That’s how Rankines was won over. He learned he was more at risk of getting serious coronavirus complications because of his weight and outreach workers helped him find a vaccination clinic. Family also helped sway him. “It was like, I got to do what I need to do in order to enjoy the summer and also enjoy family and friends?”
But he remains optimistic. “Even if I can reach one out of ten, that’s good,” he said. “You’re not going to reach everybody.”