If it were the fall, this group of volunteers would be knocking on doors in rural Cuthbert, Georgia, with folders in hand and walking shoes on their feet, to get out the vote.
These four had another mission in mind as they walked in the hot spring sun in April and May. They’re using their persuasive skills to persuade more of their neighbors to get the Covid-19 vaccine.
“Excuse me,” Joyce Barlow says to Sherod Shingles, a young man who comes out his front door in shorts and a Utah Jazz shirt, a white medical mask on his face. “Have you had your Covid-19 vaccine?”
The volunteers form a pandemic-safe ring around him.
“Nah,” Shingles says. “I haven’t got sick yet either, but you’re right, I need to.”
Randolph County has been hard hit by Covid-19. It had the highest Covid-19 case rate in the state in the early months of the pandemic.
Randolph County is also one of Georgia’s poorest and most isolated counties, located nearly 140 miles south of Atlanta and more than an hour from a major highway. It is the state’s leading producer of wheat and sorghum, and its county seat, Cuthbert, has a population of about 3,500 people and is home to Andrew College, a private liberal arts school.
Randolph County has a Black population of nearly 62 percent, and it is located in the historic Black Belt, a string of Deep South counties that includes some of the poorest and most rural areas of the country, all with large Black communities.
The county’s racial demographics make residents more vulnerable to severe coronavirus disease. People who live in rural areas, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have a higher risk of hospitalization and death from Covid-19.
However, the vaccination rate in Randolph County is well below the state average, and Georgia’s rate is among the lowest in the country.
This isn’t just a problem in Randolph County and other rural areas where vaccines have taken a long time to catch on. According to CDC researchers, low vaccination rates in rural areas could spread the pandemic across the country.
This group learned how to canvass in a political setting. They’ve been volunteers with the Randolph County Democratic Committee for years, and they run a community program called Neighbor 2 Neighbor. The group launched the program’s nonpartisan vaccine effort earlier this year, hoping to capitalize on the momentum from the 2020 election.
It was initially targeted at seniors without internet access who needed to schedule vaccine appointments with the county health department. Volunteers have increased their goals and knocked on hundreds of doors since then.
The volunteers are prepared with answers to questions, just as they are when canvassing to get out the vote.
Some of the people who come to the door claim that the Covid-19 vaccines cause infertility. That one is handled by Barlow, a canvasser and nurse, who explains that it has no effect on fertility and can share the research to prove it.
“Some tell us it’s of the devil,” Barlow says. In response to religious objections, canvassers explain how scientists were inspired by God to create the vaccines. Volunteers may attend the same church as the person they’re canvassing and may be able to identify fellow church members who have already received vaccinations.
If people say they don’t trust government, or vaccines were developed too quickly, “we listen to people’s concerns and then try to help educate them and give them food for thought,” Barlow said. “If they still say that they want to wait and see, I listen, but it’s kind of baffling, because I always ask, ‘What are you waiting for? To see how well things are going to go? We already know that. They go well when people are protected.’ “
Not everyone in rural Randolph County is opposed to vaccinations.
While many vaccine appointments are available online, Census data shows that about a third of Randolph County residents do not have access to the internet at home.
The county’s median household income is half that of Georgia, and a third of the population lives in poverty. Some people are unaware that Covid-19 vaccines are free and that no insurance is required, and it can be difficult to get time off work or find child care.