For the first months of 2021, the demand for COVID-19 vaccine in Erie County, New York greatly exceeded available supply — the same was true is many other counties, cities and towns across the country. More recently, that script has flipped, with a now-abundant supply and waning demand.
With only about 38 percent of Americans fully vaccinated at this time, municipalities throughout the nation are grappling with the same questions: How do we give people more opportunities to receive a COVID-19 vaccine? And even more importantly, how do we get residents to step up and attend one of our vaccination clinics?
In Erie County, those simple questions we found our answer: the Shot and a Chaser program.
It is a simple idea. We partner with our burgeoning local brewery and brew pub industry to coordinate a series of vaccination clinics on-site at brew pubs and restaurants — and get people in the door with the promise of a free beer.
Bringing vaccinations to familiar community sites and enabling people to receive them with a free drink at one of their favorite local watering holes injects excitement and enthusiasm to what would otherwise be a routine and even unpleasant procedure.
While the term “Shot and a Chaser” is humorous and perfect for a bar or pub vaccination program, that name does not fully reveal the double efficacy of this innovative idea. Promoting and protecting public health remains our core mission, and with this program we are able to bring public health directly into communities and into establishments that may not even have been considered for such action pre-pandemic.
Additionally, these establishments suffered under New York pause orders during the pandemic, so the added exposure and sales that these clinics bring to them is beneficial and gives everyone something to toast. The program’s popularity has led other breweries, distilleries, and restaurants to contact us to explore the possibility of setting up clinics at their establishments as well.
As other municipalities work to boost vaccination rates, they may well want to take a similarly innovative approach to not only immunize their resident while revamping the local economy.
We know from a planning perspective that the days of COVID-19 vaccine clinics with hundreds of people standing in a line stretching down the block are over. To date, more than half of our eligible county residents have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, which leaves a slowly diminishing set of residents who need a COVID-19 vaccine and are scattered haphazardly around the county. We must be creative and willing to go where people are, even if it’s for a few dozen people at a time.
This creativity has extended to appealing to other age groups as well. To encourage high school sophomores, juniors and seniors to step forward and get vaccinated we held three clinics on one recent Saturday. Positioned at sites in our county’s northern and southern suburbs, and at a central Buffalo location, clinic staff decorated the vaccination space to match different “prom” themes to enable teens to get fully vaccinated before their prom or graduation ceremonies in a fun environment. Our vaccine team also contacted local businesses to coordinate giveaways and prizes to be raffled off.
Continuing our targeted approach, we have clinics planned for child care workers, and at senior housing, work sites and large community festivals. Our vaccine teams will be stationed at any number of our beautiful County Parks with the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine this summer. Even more innovative incentive programs will materialize in partnership with local businesses. Access and convenience are the hallmarks of our COVID-19 response, and will be prominent for the foreseeable future.
Our community lost nearly 1,900 neighbors to this pandemic, with thousands more hospitalized or suffering from severe illness. Many localities across the country have felt similar loss. In addition, the health impacts on COVID-19 survivors — “long haulers” — are not yet known. We are now in recovery mode, and we may be for some time. However, we are emerging from this crisis with stronger connections between our internal departments, deeper bonds with community organizations and our county’s health care infrastructure and powerful lessons learned about how we approach public health.
Immunizing our communities is vital to recovery from this pandemic. Local efforts to reach residents who have not yet been compelled to get vaccinated will be crucial is so many places across the country — a shot and chaser model might well help others also up their vaccination rates and boost business.
Mark C. Poloncarz is the county executive of Erie County, New York . He is the first chairman of the NYS Association of Counties Climate Resiliency Committee and also serves on the National Association of Counties’ Executive Committee as the Northeast Region representative. Follow him on Twitter: @markpoloncarz
Gale R. Burstein, MD. MPH, FAAP is the Erie County commissioner of health, pediatrician, co-chair of the Erie County Opiate Epidemic Task Force and leads Erie County’s COVID-19 pandemic public health response. She has served as a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention medical officer, has held numerous clinical, research and teaching positions, and has been published in many scientific peer-reviewed journals, specializing in adolescent medicine and sexually transmitted infections.