PROVINCETOWN — The state’s “Pittsfield to Provincetown” mobile vaccination tour made a full-day stop at Provincetown’s bus stop near the Municipal Parking Lot at MacMillan Pier last Thursday, July 15. According to the Yankee Line employees and Purple Shield EMTs who work the bus, their success rate here was about average for the tour: eight people came to get a shot.
They’ve had some “no-hitters,” according to EMT Shaun Alger, when they waited all day and no one came. They’ve also had incredibly successful outings, where hundreds of people were vaccinated in a single weekend.
Many factors seem to make the difference, according to Alger, Yankee Line administrator Mike Peterson, and Yankee Line driver Mike Buchanan, who have been on the tour since May, well before the “Pittsfield to Provincetown” series began. One-day stops are not as effective as sustained appearances, they said. And they’ve seen how visits increased over time, especially on Martha’s Vineyard and in Brockton.
The team on the bus has seen direct outreach to immigrant communities pay off. And they’ve seen that the details matter, from hours of operation (it’s best to stay open well past 6 p.m.), to location (grocery store parking lots are good; bus stops are bad).
“More people have boarded the bus today looking for a ticket to Hyannis than have boarded it looking for a vaccine,” said Peterson. “We should have been in those parking spaces by town hall, right on Commercial Street. We’ve deployed at housing complexes, city parks, and grocery stores that gave away free dinners. You want to be in a high-traffic area.
“In Brockton, there was a very heavy outreach to the Guatemalan community, to convince them that we’re not here to document them,” Peterson continued. “After the first few people got the shot and nothing happened, we started to get 50 each day. From 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. we had truck after truck come by, roofers and contractors, five guys in each truck.” When people are coming in for shots, the bus stays open as late as 10 p.m.
Martha’s Vineyard organized a multi-day event with the VaxBus that resulted in about 300 vaccinations over three days. About half of those who came for the vaccines were Brazilian immigrants, according to Peterson and Buchanan.
Did Provincetown need the VaxBus? Local leaders have frequently described the town’s vaccination rate as “over 100 percent.” That’s because 3,176 vaccinated people reported Provincetown as their residence when they received their first shots. But the state Dept. of Public Health puts Provincetown’s total population at only 2,583 people.
Even accounting for Provincetown’s highly seasonal population, this is still one of the best ratios in the state; Wellfleet and Truro, for instance, have not reached 100 percent by this metric. Neither has Nantucket, although three towns on Martha’s Vineyard are above 100 percent.
While these numbers mean Provincetown is very well vaccinated, there are still gaps.
“Broadly, Provincetown and the Outer Cape have done a really good job on vaccination, including in our Jamaican and immigrant populations,” said state Sen. Julian Cyr. “However, we know vaccine hesitancy persists. We’ve made a request to the state to bring in additional support, with a particular focus on essential workers and immigrant communities.”
On Monday, July 19, a few days after the VaxBus pulled away, eight more people were vaccinated at the mobile testing site at the Veterans Memorial Community Center, Cyr said. And another 11 were vaccinated at Outer Cape Health Services. “That’s how I think we’re going to do this,” he said, “by ones and twos, through community-based efforts.”
Cyr said public health officials are also relying on businesses to encourage their employees to get vaccinated.
The outbreak among vaccinated people in Provincetown clearly poses a threat to the health of the unvaccinated. Any strain of Covid-19 that can give a week of moderate flu-like symptoms to a fully vaccinated person could wreak havoc on an unprepared immune system.
There is still uncertainty about how much viral load a vaccinated person is likely to have, even while sick. It is possible that vaccinated people are less likely to transmit the virus, as Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested at a July 16 briefing at the White House.
What is known is that the vaccines work. And being on the VaxBus tells much about how to get them to more people.
“In Brockton, we bounced all over the city, different hours, different locations,” said Alger. “There’s a volunteer DJ, Nate Adams — he just retired from the hospital — and he’d play the music loud, announcing every fifteen minutes, ‘Hey, free vaccine!’ We saw it work.
“We’ve had days where we open at 6 a.m., to catch people going to work,” he continued. “We’ve seen HR departments that put a lot of energy into it, kept everybody on the clock while they got their shot. Sometimes,” Alger said, it comes down to “just answering questions for the people who are skeptical.”
There were protesters outside the VaxBus that day: three members of the United Cape Patriots from Brewster. Alger and Peterson said they were quiet and respectful compared to others they’ve encountered in Boston and elsewhere, but they also said protestors do have a deterrent effect.
“If you have confrontation, or police, authority, government” present, said Peterson, “it’s going to deter some people who don’t want confrontation — and that includes immigrants.”
“This group is pretty tame,” said Alger, looking at the anti-vaccination protestors outside the bus. “There’s a group in Boston that will stand right outside and scream ‘killer’ into the doors. These folks, they ask a lot of questions, like, ‘Haven’t you ever seen bad side effects?’ I tell them I’ve administered thousands of shots — I’ve been on this bus since April — and I’ve never seen an adverse reaction.”