Mass-vaccination sites are shutting down partly because you no longer need to visit one to get a shot. Pharmacies in particular have stepped up their vaccine campaigns. “You can’t go into a grocery store here in town and not see signs up,” Todd told me. And the neighborhood pharmacy is a lot more convenient than a mass-vaccination site halfway across town.
Vaccine supply is no longer a bottleneck in many places. Mecklenburg County, in North Carolina, originally had a vaccine waiting list 6,000 people long. Recently, Gibbie Harris, the director of the county’s health department, was discussing whether to keep the list when she realized, “No, there’s nobody on it.” Everyone eager enough to get on a waiting list had already found a vaccine. The county will also wind down its mass-vaccination site at Bojangles Coliseum, in Charlotte, at the end of May. Instead, it will divert staff and resources to taking the vaccine on the road with mobile vaccine clinics at events including a motorcycle rally and a food-truck festival. “We’re looking at anywhere and everywhere we can go,” she says. To reach people who physically cannot come to a clinic, the department also has a homebound program.
Demand for mass-vaccination sites is falling faster in some parts of the country than others, though. In Orange County, California, appointments were full until just this past week; now they’re still 80 percent full, says Regina Chinsio-Kwong, a deputy health officer for the county. But she expects mass-vaccination sites to be phased out by the fall. By then, she told me, “we’ll have just more mobile or travel teams going out.” The county’s mobile teams will focus on vaccine equity; they are already working with groups such as the Multi-ethnic Collaborative of Community Agencies (MECCA) and Latino Health Access to get vaccines to underserved neighborhoods. Pharmacies, doctors’ offices, and clinics will help fill in the gap.
This next phase will be slower and more laborious simply because it requires reaching people who are harder to reach. Instead of thousands of shots at once, it’s going to be a hundred doses here, a few dozen doses there. “We just have to adjust our expectations,” says Kirsten Johnson, the commissioner of the Milwaukee Health Department, which recently also announced the closing of the city’s mass-vaccination site. “Twenty vaccines in arms at a site is still a win.”
The role of primary-care doctors has so far been limited in the vaccination process, but they will play an important part in what comes next. For months now, vaccine experts have been telling me that the established trust between patient and doctor is key to persuading people on the fence about vaccines to get one. “This is where the conversation happens,” says Saria Saccocio, a co-chair of the COVID-19-vaccine task force for Prisma Health, a large health-care system in South Carolina. Prisma is currently ramping down its mass-vaccination clinics to focus on giving vaccines through its primary-care doctors.