FARGO — The 1980s hit rock band Foreigner offered free admission to its concert at the Bismarck Events Center to the first vaccinated fans who signed up for tickets in an effort to encourage getting the COVID-19 shot.
The friendly nudge toward the needle at the Saturday, June 26, concert is rare in North Dakota, where the state Constitution prohibits gifts from the state. That poses a barrier to offering a lottery or other public incentive, which other states have done successfully.
North Dakota has consistently lagged among the bottom half of states in COVID-19 vaccination rates.
The 55.2% vaccination rate of North Dakota residents 18 and older ranked 37th among the 50 states, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted Friday. Neighboring Minnesota, with 69.4%, ranked 16th and South Dakota, with 63.7%, ranked 22nd.
But officials aim to boost North Dakota’s vaccinated population with help from a $5.7 million federal grant to the Center for Immunization Research and Education at North Dakota State University.
“That will be aimed at increasing vaccination rates and vaccine confidence,” said Kylie Hall, the immunization center’s project coordinator. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Because people’s most trusted source of health information is often their personal doctor, a key component of the strategy to boost vaccination rates will focus on peer-to-peer training of physicians who can in turn pass trusted information along to their patients and others in the community, Hall said.
Primary care physicians, including those in family practice, internal medicine and pediatrics, will be especially important, but the training also will be given to nurses and other clinic staff, she said.
Pharmacists also will be important in helping to answer questions about the vaccines and to provide shots, Hall said. “We have an abundance of pharmacies,” she said.
The effort to boost vaccinations also will examine what social media messages resonate with people and then promote effective messages on social media platforms, where disinformation about vaccines has been rampant.
“We know social media is big in most people’s lives,” Hall said.
Both North Dakota and Minnesota have embraced the goal of vaccinating 70% of their populations.
“I do have confidence that we’ll eventually get there,” said Molly Howell, North Dakota’s immunization director. “I think it’s going to take a bit of time.”
North Dakota’s vaccination rate among those 18 and older has climbed about one percentage point per week in recent weeks, she said. Vaccine acceptance was rapid when vaccines first became available earlier this year, Howell added, then plateaued at the end of April.
Public health officials said it’s important for everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated to protect against a possible surge caused by the so-called Delta variant, which is highly transmissible without protection from a vaccine.
“I am concerned about the Delta variant and what will happen this summer, especially after the Fourth of July,” when people will gather to celebrate, creating opportunities for the coronavirus to spread, Howell said.
As people resume their routines, including regular visits to the clinic, Howell and Hall hope that more people will get any questions they have about the vaccines answered and get the jab.
Summer is a time of celebrations and get-togethers, and the drive to boost vaccinations will include pop-up vaccination clinics in partnership with local organizations, Hall said, adding that she hopes event sponsors will be willing to collaborate.
“That really comes down to local public-private partnerships,” she said. Bars, for example, could sponsor events or promotions tied to getting vaccinated.
Efforts also will be made to encourage local physicians and clinics to keep vaccines on hand, so patients who stop by for visits could opt to be vaccinated, making vaccination convenient and accessible, Hall said.
Fargo Cass Public Health, which is providing vaccines to the Cass County Jail weekly and to homebound patients identified through its home health program, is continually evaluating mobile vaccine clinics, Director Desi Fleming said.
Public health offers COVID-19 vaccination each Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. until July 6, when the hours will change to 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Walk-ins among those 12 and older are welcome any time during clinic hours.
As summer wanes and attention turns to the fall, public health officials hope COVID-19 immunizations will pick up as students get their school vaccinations.