Tempe redoubles its vaccination effort as Delta variant takes hold

85281 zip code a target area for push

A community event at Jaycee Park drew a small crowd and resulted in more than 40 new vaccinations.
A community event at Jaycee Park drew a small crowd and resulted in more than 40 new vaccinations.
Submitted Photos

The city of Tempe is taking a data-driven approach to vaccinate its hardest hit and hardest to reach ZIP code in order to achieve the elusive goal of herd immunity.

The ZIP code 85281, a large portion of which is inhabited by Arizona State University’s swarms of college students, is the lowest vaccinated of Tempe’s four codes. It’s also the city’s youngest, as well as the ZIP code with the highest number of COVID-19 cases, making it a target for the city’s big vaccination push.

According to the city, just 44.5% of people residing in 85281 have been fully vaccinated. That’s low, especially compared with the 53% vaccinated in 85282, 51.3% in 85283 and 67.8% in 85284. Approximately 55.5% of people in Arizona have been vaccinated to date.

“The city of Tempe is very data driven, and we are also looking at trying to be as proactive as we can with the pandemic and looking at once people were getting vaccinated, we anticipated a variant coming forward,” said Tempe Deputy City Manager Rosa Inchausti. “Always anticipating the next step.”

The goal is to have the city at least 75% vaccinated by Labor Day.

As of Aug. 17, Tempe has redoubled efforts in the area, also targeting hesitant people ages 20 to 34 and Hispanics, thanks to data gathered from a survey sent out in July and a “think tank” formed by the city, Tempe Fire Medical Rescue Department, and Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine with Maricopa County Department of Public Health.

The survey reported more than half of unvaccinated respondents said they had a strong resistance to getting the vaccine. 1 in 10 were undecided. 1 in 5 were waiting to make sure the three approved vaccines are safe. Reasons for hesitancy included long-term health risk, short-term side effects and not enough benefits from getting the shot. Many reported access to be a big barrier and wanted more opportunities to get vaccinated at night or on weekends. For those who did get vaccinated, the top driver was to protect themselves or others they live with. The second was the promise of a return to normalcy.

In 85281 specifically, 60% of the unvaccinated reported having no intentions to get vaccinated, though the overwhelming majority placed a high amount of trust in local health officials.

Thus, a grassroots effort to vaccinate the unvaccinated began.

Tempe has mailed postcards to thousands of people in 85281, placed yard signs with vaccination information in 16 parks, at fire stations and on digital marquees in the ZIP code.

Events have been held at Jaycee Park, Mountain Park Healthcare Clinic, local food pantries, churches and even near the bars on Mill Avenue to catch young people when they’re out at night. The Mayor’s Youth Advisory Commission is also creating TikToks to reach people on the popular social media platform.

“I think there’s great power and connection between local government and understanding,” said Inchausti. “We know the businesses. We know we have a great partnership with ASU, so that knowledge and connection and relationship is important to getting folks to understand the importance of vaccination, so it’s not like a strangers coming in and saying, ‘Hey, we think that you should.’”

Education and myth busting also have been at the forefront of the city’s messaging. Each community event also has featured free rapid COVID testing, which allows the city and its health experts to reach people who come for a test to get the vaccine; the city offers Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson so choice abounds.

A recent community event at Jaycee Park to feed and care for the homeless resulted in 41 vaccinations. Approximately 32 came in for rapid testing, and Inchausti said the city was able to convince 10 of them to get vaccinated.

“They were just coming for the test,” she said. “We were able to speak to them and make them comfortable enough to get the vaccine. That’s the heavy lift right now, it’s not just offering the vaccine, it’s a lot more conversations with folks and dispelling any of the myths that may have about it but also assuring them of the safety of this. It’s definitely grassroots.”

While Inchausti said the city has seen a definitive uptick in vaccinations since the push began, she’s not sure Tempe should get all the credit.

“There are other folks doing this, it’s just ours is almost like a different approach in partnering with community partners that help us, that have the trust of the groups that we’re trying to engage with in order for them to feel comfortable getting the vaccine,” she said. “I also think that people have become much more informed. I don’t think there’s one magic strategy that’s getting people vaccinated, I think it’s multiple things. I do think our campaign is working.”