Sophia Lindsey, at left, speaks Wednesday with Pat Majeed, operator at Clippers & Curls, at the salon on Beloit’s east side as Majeed cuts the hair of Jay Monroe, 8, Beloit. Lindsey is one of two health ambassadors for free clinic HealthNet of Rock County who are working to meet face-to-face with local Black and Hispanic residents to try to boost COVID-19 vaccination rates among minority members of the population.

BELOIT—On a hot, muggy Thursday morning, Sophia Lindsey walked into Clippers & Curls salon on Beloit’s East Side.

Lindsey, a community COVID-19 ambassador for free clinic HealthNet of Rock County, carried a leatherette binder full of vaccination information and a message tailored to reach the more than 80% of local Black residents who are still not fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Lindsey’s goal: to canvass the streets and meet face-to-face with Black residents to try to convince them to get vaccinated. She and HealthNet hope to convince 500 more people to get vaccinated at a time when local and national health data shows vaccination rates slowing.

Thursday morning, Lindsey had a list of about 15 residents she’d reached at a local apartment complex, a corner grocery and Clippers & Curls. Lindsey said she hopes she’ll get all of them to get a vaccination.

“We’re just out here talking. We’re not arguing or trying to change your mind if it’s already made up. We’re talking,” Lindsey said. “And talking seems like it’s the easy part, but it’s actually the hard part.”

In Rock County, a main challenge in an ongoing fight against the COVID-19 pandemic is that certain racial demographic groups continue to lag behind in vaccination.

Wisconsin Department of Health Services data shows about 17% of the Black population in Rock County is now fully vaccinated against COVID-19. That trails the statewide average of 21% for Black residents, and it’s significantly lower than the overall, 41% rate of full vaccination for all residents countywide.

There’s an even bigger gap in the vaccination rate for local Hispanic residents. Here, about 21% of Rock County’s Hispanic residents are now fully vaccinated, a number that lags about 7 percentage points behind statewide averages for the Hispanic population.

HealthNet’s targeted outreach—planned visits by ambassadors to public housing complexes, ethnic grocery stores and barbershops in predominately Black neighborhoods—represents a more surgical targeting of tougher-to-reach parts of the Black and Hispanic populations, which collectively make up about 25,000 of Rock County’s 163,000 residents.

That’s a significant slice of the overall population. HealthNet CEO Ian Hedges said his strategy is to try to bring the vaccine—or at least the idea of vaccination—right in front of people who the message hasn’t been fully reaching.

Lindsey and Hedges list personal politics, uncertainty, fear or mistrust of the health care system, and a lack of a clear understanding of the relatively low degree of risk in COVID-19 vaccination as reasons why many minority residents have not gotten vaccinated.

Hedges, whose nonprofit clinic has a high number of minority patients, believes that Black and Hispanic populations could represent a higher percentage of those who might still be undecided about whether to get a vaccine.

He believes that a strategy which relies on finding and directly communicating with those people presents the county’s best shot at reaching herd immunity—or at least having enough people vaccinated that fewer neighborhoods or demographic slices of the population are at risk of hot spots for emerging COVID infection.

“We’re still finding that just because individuals say no to vaccination now, doesn’t mean they will not want it later. Because we are seeing a lot of people that initially said no who are now saying yes,” Hedges said.