Will door-to-door ‘vaccine missionaries’ win any converts?

The Biden administration is encouraging door-to-door outreach to educate about the COVID-19 vaccine. ‘Faith-based approaches’ may be more effective, poll says

They walk in pairs through neighborhoods, sharing their message door to door. Most are unpaid; they signed up for this work because they believe in it. Their training focuses on how to deal with tough questions and tough conversations — and while some people listen, many slam the door.

These public health volunteers proselytize about the COVID-19 vaccine, not religion. Their methods, though, resemble what door-to-door evangelists have done for decades. And as many Americans continue to be hesitant about receiving the vaccine, President Joe Biden hopes door-to-door corps can soften hearts.

The problem is most unvaccinated people are staunch opponents of the vaccine campaign. A recent poll conducted by Scott Rasmussen suggests that 74% of vaccine-reluctant voters — those who want to “wait and see,” who are in no rush, or who say they’ll never get vaccinated — are opposed to vaccine volunteers going from home to home. A better strategy for them, another poll says, is faith-based — like encouragement from a religious leader or a vaccine clinic at their church.

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Much of the opposition is political. Republicans are far more likely (47%) to say they won’t be vaccinated than independents (22%) or Democrats (6%). The door-to-door idea has been lauded by Biden, whose handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is viewed favorably by just one-third of Republicans.

The idea of a grassroots canvassing campaign wasn’t Biden’s alone, though. In early July, the president said the next step in the vaccine rollout included going “community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood and oftentimes door to door — literally knocking on doors — to get help to the remaining people protected from the virus.” But several states have been sending on-the-ground vaccine promoters through neighborhoods for months, including ruby-red state Louisiana, where nearly 300 canvassers have answered doorstep questions from vaccine-wary residents since April. Similar programs have found success in Kansas City, Detroit and elsewhere. 

The campaigns went largely unnoticed at a national level, though — until Biden’s comments. Shortly after the president suggested “literally knocking on doors,” Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., called the volunteers “needle Nazis,” and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, tweeted, “The Biden Administration wants to knock on your door to see if you’re vaccinated. What’s next? Knocking on your door to see if you own a gun?” Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., ramped up Jordan’s fears, warning that such a slippery slope could lead to confiscated guns and Bibles. And Charlie Kirk, the conservative pundit, sent mass texts to his youth organization, saying, “LOCK YOUR DOORS, KIDS!!”

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The White House has attempted to clear up misconceptions. The main goal of the door-to-door campaign is to ensure all Americans “have the information they need on how both safe and accessible the vaccine is,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. According to the White House, volunteers are not going door to door with syringes but with information about the vaccines. The government has no national registry of vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, and on-the-ground volunteers are not deployed to specific households; in fact, directives are not coming from the federal government. 

How — or if — states carry out door-to-door efforts is up to them, though funding for “COVID-19 vaccination outreach” is available to states through the latest federal relief bill. And the door-knockers are not federal employees or members of the government; instead, they are local volunteers. In some states, clergy and religious groups participate. 

Some of the groups most opposed to the door-knocking schemes may be ones most familiar with such practices. More than one-third of Latter-day Saints and Hispanic Catholics — two religious groups not unfamiliar with door-to-door evangelization — were vaccine-hesitant, according to a Public Religion Research Institute poll conducted in March.

After Biden first encouraged the new outreach strategy, the Babylon Bee — a satirical Christian website — posted an article with Biden’s and Psaki’s faces photoshopped above white shirts, ties and black nametags, with the headline “Biden, Psaki To Go Door To Door On Bikes Asking If You Have A Moment To Talk About Getting Vaccinated.” 

Some descriptions from door-to-door canvassers sound like they came straight from religious missionaries, too. “I’m not here to make your mind up for you. I’m here to help you along the way,” one Louisiana volunteer told a local newspaper, rehearsing her typical pitch. When asked about his strategy, another said, “Work for the ‘yes’ but respect the ‘no,’ and have faith that the ‘no’ will turn into a ‘yes.’” And when one Missouri woman yelled, “We’re not interested, thanks,” through a closed door (and over the sound of a barking dog), the volunteer politely said, “All right, thank you,” and stepped off the porch.

Knocking on doors may not appeal to most, but working with religion in mind isn’t a bad strategy. A recent Public Religion Research Institute poll suggests 44% of vaccine-hesitant religious Americans say a faith-based approach may impact their decision to get vaccinated — like a religious leader encouraging vaccination, a congregation hosting an informational forum about vaccines, or a church serving as a vaccination site. 

Latter-day Saints, the survey shows, are more likely than any other religious group besides Jews to view vaccination as an example of loving your neighbors (69% agree). And Latter-day Saints led all religions in the poll in their trust in religious leaders (75% said they can trust faith leaders to do what is right almost all or most of the time), and 37% said they would look to a religious leader “some” or “a lot” for information about COVID-19 vaccines — again, higher than any other religion in the group.

In January, Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, shared an image on social media of him receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, calling it a “literal godsend” and encouraging church members to “help quell the pandemic by safeguarding themselves and others through immunization.”

Many experts say such an approach is more effective than a government-led outreach program. “The federal government is playing catch-up to what works,” Dr. Jehan El-Bayoumi, a professor of medicine at George Washington University, told The New York Times. “People trust their spiritual leaders more than doctors and government leaders.”