The Holdouts: Volunteers go door-to-door in Vegas to quell fears about COVID-19 vaccine

This is part of "The Holdouts," an ongoing series looking into Nevadans who have been hesitant about getting vaccinated against the coronavirus.

On a recent afternoon, Luz Maria Salgado wore a long floral skirt and a long-sleeved top under her Mi Familia Vota T-shirt to protect her skin from the sun’s rays, holding an iPad on a sling. 

As someone who has already been sick with COVID-19 and got in line the moment she was eligible to receive the vaccine, Salgado said it’s easier now than ever to get vaccinated at one of the community events — but hesitancy persists. 

“When we go door-to-door, we inform people of the vaccines available at their reach, in their neighborhood,” Salgado said in Spanish, noting some of the misinformation she encounters. “But [while] they say they’re afraid that it might be a [microchip], they should be more afraid of getting sick. But we respect their decision.”

Although Mi Familia Vota is best known for its get-out-the-vote work, the group has recently redirected its door-to-door know-how toward a new goal — spreading awareness of COVID-19 vaccine availability amid stagnating inoculation rates. 

Over the past few weeks, canvassers wearing gray shirts and black tennis shoes have braved triple-digit temperatures and fanned out to visit homes, apartments and businesses — from predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, to downtown Las Vegas and the Fremont Street Experience.

It’s part of a shifting public health strategy as vaccination efforts transition to smaller pop-up vaccine clinics in nearby schools, community centers and government buildings from large vaccination sites such as the Las Vegas Convention Center. As of Aug. 9, 40 percent of Clark County’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19.  

Eduardo Alvarez, another canvasser, said he has friends who still refuse to get the vaccine, with reasons ranging from lack of information to misinformation to stubbornness. His job of informing people about the vaccine doesn’t stop when his shift ends.   

“They don’t believe in the vaccine and I tell them it’s proven that it helps people, but they see things online saying it's the government trying to control them,” Alvarez said, switching between Spanish and English. “They’ll believe what they want.”

At each stop, canvassers left flyers promoting nearby upcoming COVID-19 vaccination events with the hope that household members would attend or pass on the information to someone not vaccinated, or the business would put up the flyer for its clientele to see. 

“We’re not here to force people to get the vaccines, we’re here to educate them,” said Maria Nieto Orta, the Nevada state coordinator for Mi Familia Vota. “We have seen that the biggest way of mobilizing is through empowering and educating. If we’re not educating and empowering, our community is not going to listen to us.” 

Luz Salgado, left, and Letty Rios Sanchez with Mi Familia Vota deliver COVID-19 vaccine information to a business in downtown Las Vegas on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The strategy has received backlash in some parts of the state: Elko County commissioners unanimously voted last week to ban door-to-door “solicitation” of COVID-19 vaccines

But canvassers are pressing on. They told The Nevada Independent that addressing questions of those who are hesitant about vaccines — whether it’s in English and Spanish — helps build trust in communities. Alvarez said canvassers can address people’s concerns about the vaccine in their own language, and the residents listen a little more. 

“We get people that are hesitant and we ask them ‘que lo esta deteniendo? What’s preventing you from getting vaccinated?’ and they just say ‘Well, the news says it’s not very safe with all those reactions people have to it,’” he said, wiping sweat from under his black mask. “And we try to explain to them that there are medics at vaccination sites in case they have a severe reaction to the vaccine. I hope we do change people’s minds or at least they give it a second thought.”

Most of Salgado’s family has been vaccinated, but when the mask mandate was lifted in May, she said she and her teen daughters kept wearing them when going out, especially because her entire household caught COVID-19 after her oldest daughter and son-in-law visited from out of town in December. 

The family — including her elderly parents, who were visiting from Mexico at the time — was able to manage their symptoms at home, but still fear getting sick again.

Members of Mi Familia Vota hand out COVID-19 vaccine information in downtown Las Vegas on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

“I think if everyone would do their part and get vaccinated, we would be better off … People don’t listen to the science out there,” Salgado said. “The flyers speak loudly, though.That’s why even when they don’t answer the door, we leave them to read them later and hopefully encourage them to get vaccinated.”  

And if the current efforts are not enough to convince people, the resurgence of COVID-19 cases and the reinstatement of an indoor mask mandate for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people might do the trick. This summer, a new wave of COVID-19 hit the state amid stagnating vaccination rates and the rise of the highly transmissible Delta variant, driving case numbers and hospitalization rates sharply up — primarily among the unvaccinated.

As of Tuesday, about 1,080 new COVID-19 cases were being reported on average each day over the last seven days, and there were 1,279 people hospitalized with confirmed and suspected COVID-19.

“I think people will realize how much they don’t want to wear a mask, so they’ll get vaccinated,” Alvarez said.