Pop-up event in downtown Raleigh's Moore Square offering free meal and a COVID-19 vaccine

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- As North Carolina faces a slowdown in new sign-ups, providers are working to expand outreach, including offering incentives.

From noon to 5 p.m. through Friday, Eastern Carolina Medical Center Pharmacy and Avance Care Pharmacy are teaming up with Square Burger to offer a free hot meal to people who get a vaccine shot at a pop-up clinic.

"They say the number one reason why people aren't vaccinated yet is that it's an inconvenience. So if we take it to them a little more, then we can skinny that number up and get more people vaccinated," said Greg Hatem, owner of Empire Eats, which runs Square Burger.

Hatem said the location of Moore Square offers an opportunity to catch a large group of people.

"Moore Square is an amazing place because of the diversity of folks who come through here. So many folks who work downtown are hearing about it, and they're walking down. A lot of folks that travel through the bus station are coming through here. And some of the homeless population that walk through are coming in for their shots. And we think that's a real underserved population that we need to be focusing on," Hatem explained.

Hatem is hopeful that increasing vaccinations will help the restaurant industry, which has been severely impacted by the pandemic.

"Getting a vaccine will do two things. I think first it will give people more confidence to go out knowing they're (protected). But in addition, they'll be able to go back out with a sense of normalcy that the distances don't have to be six feet, and maybe they can feel more comfortable not wearing masks," said Hatem, who hopes to reach 200 people during the week.

Through Tuesday, 49.9% of adults in North Carolina have received at least one vaccine dose, lagging behind the national rate of 56.7%. North Carolina has seen a sharp decline in vaccinations the past few weeks, with the last week of April representing a nearly 50% decline compared to the beginning of the month. Troublingly, all providers in the state failed to crack 125,000 first doses for the first time since mid-February, highlighting the difficulty in connecting with new people.

"North Carolina is not unique in terms of some of the drivers of vaccine hesitancy. Some of the politicization of COVID which has contributed to lower vaccine uptake," said Dr. Emily O'Brien, an epidemiologist and associate professor of Population Health Sciences at Duke.

The NCGOP has vocally supported vaccinations, even teaming up with Democrats to take part in bipartisan efforts encouraging sign-ups. However, O'Brien believes there's a more effective way to address hesitancy.

"The most effective way to dispel those myths is one-on-one conversations and stories. And so having people connect with friends, family, community members who've been vaccinated and are willing to share their experience and really listen to the reasons for hesitancy and address those through one-on-one conversations instead of these mass media messages," said O'Brien.

O'Brien noted North Carolina has earned praise for vaccinating its 65-and-older population and for equitable distribution.

"The next step of course is messaging. Certainly, it makes sense for the messaging to be consistent, but what we're also seeing is that it's important to be customized to the respective concerns of the population. And again to come from a trusted source. So engaging with community leaders who may not be totally comfortable with the idea of being a health educator but are comfortable with communication with their community members is going to be very important, (as is) providing resources to do that, providing materials and training that can be easily customized and adapted for the local level and really used in multiple kinds of conversations and venues is going to be very critical," O'Brien said.
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