WASHINGTON — The federal government, which has long struggled to increase Covid-19 vaccinations in rural areas, is starting to take its shots to where the people are: NASCAR races.
A vaccination tent at the NASCAR Cup Series in Arizona next month — attended by roughly 100,000 people — is the latest effort devised by Health and Human Services officials and advisers keen to reinvigorate booster rates that have stalled amid public fatigue and skepticism.
While 68% of eligible Americans received primary doses of Covid-19 vaccines, less than half got a first booster shot, while just over 37% got a second one. By the end of this week, between 13 and 15 million people will have received reformulated, bivalent versions of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines launched last month — just over 4% of the U.S. population.
“We think that’s a really good start,” said White House Covid-19 coordinator Ashish Jha during a Friday call with reporters on vaccination efforts, noting that half those boosters have gone to seniors. “We need to continue at that pace as we get into October.”
Biden officials refuse to assign a goal for booster rates ahead of an expected fall or winter surge though they are stressing that all Americans should receive the updated shots, largely to protect older and immunocompromised people who have more consistently received vaccines. (Nearly 93% of Americans 65 and older received their primary doses and 71% got their first booster).
Older people are still the majority of those dying from the virus. Jha attributed many of those deaths to people not being up-to-date on booster recommendations.
And many older Americans live in rural areas. Based on surveys conducted last year, “Rural adults are older and less racially/ethnically diverse than the general population,” reads an HHS memo on the rural vaccination strategy. It noted that vaccine gaps between rural and urban populations have been widening: Roughly 58% of rural Americans older than 5 got at least the first dose, compared to more than 75% of urban residents in the same age range.
“[Rural Americans] are more likely to believe or be unsure about misinformation related to COVID and vaccines compared to those in urban areas, so providing fact-based information about vaccine safety and effectiveness is important,” the memo said.
Health officials are hopeful that partnerships through groups like the Healthy Trucking of America and other rural organizations can help budge a skeptical wedge of the population.
Healthy Trucking began with information booths at trucking conventions before enlisting local health workers this summer to vaccinate people at motor events such as this weekend’s long-haul trucking event at Talladega Motor Speedway in Lincoln, Alabama and November’s NASCAR race.
A handful of people were vaccinated but it was mostly an education event, said Healthy Trucking CEO Jon Slaughter, who said the team fielded a lot of questions about the updated vaccines.
“The drivers were all open and asked a lot of questions,” said Slaughter.
His team harbors high hopes that many more people will get vaccinated during the weeklong Nascar championship in Arizona next month. More than 40,000 people are expected to attend. The average long-haul truck driver is between 45 and 50 years old and 62% of the workforce qualify as obese, said Slaughter. Most of the people who get vaccinated at the events are first-timers or getting their second primary dose.
Slaughter describes a mix of people who were ambivalent, outright anti-vaccine or experiencing “FOFO” — fear of [loved ones] finding out. At one event, a woman got her vaccine while her husband was busy.
“We speak trucker-ese,” said Slaughter. “When you have someone who can speak to them on that level, the message usually gets accepted pretty quickly.”
A NASCAR spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions about whether the organization was affiliated with the vaccination campaign. Under the sport’s current protocols, drivers — and their fans — aren’t required to get vaccinated, though vaccinated drivers with Covid-19 exposure can be cleared to compete faster than unvaccinated peers.
Federal health officials have employed the community leader approach to vaccine campaigns since the rollout began, but have shifted their focus in recent months to narrow in on older Americans that, their analysts believe, can be convinced.
“Given limited funding, the ‘We Can Do This’ campaign is operating in an extra targeted way, focusing on adults aged 50+ and hard-to-reach communities,” said a spokesperson.
Jha also blasted the lack of funding in the Friday call with reporters, saying Congress — which has balked at allotting new funds, questioning how existing budgets have been spent — is “walking away from the American people at this moment.”
The Biden administration has purchased 171 million bivalent vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech for a combined $4.9 billion. Jha and other health officials including HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra have said the country is on the cusp of annual vaccinations, much like flu shots, for most Americans — as long as the country weathers a potential winter surge and the likely prospect of new variants.
“Deaths are down 90% since the president took office, are we comfortable with that? Absolutely not,” said Jha. “It’s great, but we got to do a whole lot better.”
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Update: This article was revised to include more information about this weekend’s event at the Talladega Motor Speedway.
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