TUSCARAWAS TWP. - Amberjoy Hopper started feeling sick last winter; she felt gross and ran a fever. At first, she thought it was the flu. When she lost her sense of smell and taste, she knew it was COVID-19.
"It was awful. Everything tastes like water," the 25-year-old Canton resident said. "You don't want to eat or drink coffee because it doesn't taste like anything."
Her newborn also came down with fevers for three weeks.
Eventually, their fevers went down and after 15 days Hopper's sense of taste and smell began to slowly return.
Hopper seems like someone who would have been first in line for the vaccine when it was made available to all Ohioans in late March. She had the virus, had no interest in catching it again and wanted to protect her son. She is not opposed to vaccinations, but still, she waited.
Changing the strategy
Seven months into the state's vaccination campaign, local health departments have shifted their focus to people like Hopper. Those who were eager to get their shots already have them, and those dead set against them likely never will.
That leaves the people still on the fence, those who are waiting and seeing, with busy schedules, in far-flung or neglected locales, and those who just do not feel ready.
The puzzle for health officials now is how to nudge those people off the fence. The solution Stark County's health departments have settled on is to seek them out. More concretely, to drive the vaccine to their communities in a Stark Area Regional Transit Authority bus and offer cold hard cash.
Taking a ride on the vaccine bus
Despite the air conditioning running at full blast, the Stark County Health Department's mobile clinic aboard a SARTA bus was still a bit humid around 9:30 a.m. on a bright Wednesday morning.
The bus was parked beside the Lawrence Township Administration Building on state Route 93 south of Canal Fulton.
On board, Chris Cugini was working up a sweat as he dashed up and down the aisle writing out vaccination cards, supplying card holders and explaining how to schedule a second shot.
Cugini, a communications specialist with the Stark County Health Department, was out on his third vaccination bus tour, and, he said, the most successful yet.
At 9:30, there were nine people on the bus waiting through the 15-minute observation period after receiving their first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. During the two previous clinics, the health agency vaccinated 12 and 13 people over several stops, so the high turnout at the first stop of the day on July 28 was promising, Cugini said.
By the end of the day, the mobile clinic vaccinated 18 people.
Why did people get vaccinated on the bus?
All of them had slightly different reasons for turning out, but in Lawrence Township there was one constant: Convenience.
Diane Parker, 59, and her daughter, 31-year-old Kyan Parker, had been meaning to get vaccinated for several months, but their busy schedules made it tricky to find an opportunity to drive from their home in rural Lawrence Township to a clinic.
"We didn't have the time," Kyan said. "I always had something else."
Then, Diane saw the announcement of the upcoming clinic at the administration building in the newspaper.
"We live literally a couple of streets down," Kyan said.
Diane also had an eye on the rising cases counts nationwide, which were hitting the unvaccinated hardest. So, they decided to go.
Sitting a handful of seats away in the bus was the Gill family, also from Lawrence Township.
"We wanted to wait and see and give it more time," mom Melissa said. "Then our own physicians who we trust told us it was safe, and I saw a doctor talk about the science."
Yet after she was reassured the vaccines were safe, Melissa, 40, said it was tough to round up the whole family, eighth-grade twins Gavin and Savannah and another son and daughter who are too young to be eligible for the vaccine, to go to a clinic.
"It literally took them coming 10 minutes away from me to say 'Alright, let's do it,'" she said.
Rolling down the road
After the last observation period was over, the bus pulled out of the parking lot and rolled south down Route 93 toward the next stop at Tuslaw High School in Tuscarawas Township.
"I call it doing shots on the party bus," Janet Hite, a Stark County Health Department nurse, said with a smile and a chuckle after the bus parked at the high school.
She cannot count the number of COVID-19 vaccinations she has administered over the past six months, but it numbers in the thousands. Talking with the people she is vaccinating, Hite has heard that most of them are persuaded by the convenience, not the incentive.
On Wednesday, Fred Cameron, who works with an Ohio initiative called Vax on the Spot, was handing out $100 gift cards to those who had rolled up their sleeves.
Charles Worstall, 52, had driven in from East Canton after his 74-year-old mother convinced him to get vaccinated. He had heard vaguely about some incentives being offered but protecting his health was the motivating factor.
"I think they're great, but I wouldn't get a shot just because someone was bribing me," Melissa Gill said.
Heard vaccine misinformation
Most of the people who received their shots on the bus on Wednesday had seen or heard vaccine misinformation.
Alexis Salle, 19, said at first she had hesitated to get the vaccine because it was so new, she also saw anti-vaccination posts online. On the other hand, her grandparents and most of her friends got their shots and were fine.
"It's what you read on the internet compared to people around that you know," the North Canton resident said. "And of course, I'm going with people I know over people on the internet."
Hopper had a similar experience. Relatives and posts on social media said the vaccines could kill you if you had asthma, could make you magnetic and contained fetuses. None of that is true.
But Hopper said: "When they tell you that, it's scary,"
Her mom was nervous, too, but took the vaccine anyway. She was fine.
So on Wednesday in a humid SARTA bus parked next to the Tuslaw High School Marching Band running through drills on the hot blacktop and her 8-month-old watching from a stroller, Hopper got the vaccine.
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