T-Shirt Campaign Makes Townspeople “Walking Billboards” for Vaccine Confidence

Pharmacist John Pugh offers COVID-19 vaccines and vaccination-themed t-shirts at the Juneteenth celebration in Newberry, South Carolina.

Pharmacist John Pugh offers COVID-19 vaccines and vaccination-themed t-shirts at the Juneteenth celebration in Newberry, South Carolina.

When the COVID-19 vaccine first became available, John Pugh, PharmD, knew it would be easy to vaccinate the people of Prosperity, South Carolina, who were already eager to be immunized. His real challenge would be to change the minds of those who weren’t so keen on getting the shot.

Throughout the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the independent pharmacist put substantial effort into winning over people who were merely contemplating vaccination.

With a grant from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, Prosperity Drug Company owner Pugh and his staff have created and implemented a grassroots campaign to generate vaccine confidence across Newberry County.

“To address vaccine hesitancy, you have to use all available local tools and resources,” Pugh said.

The first resource Pugh made use of was the space on the backs of more than 1,800 community members. With a portion of the grant money, he had a series of clever, pro-vaccine, graphic t-shirts made. The t-shirts were distributed for free from vaccine education tents that he and his staff set up at numerous events around the county.

“We found that plugging ourselves into existing events works better than trying to do our own,” Pugh said.

Prosperity Drug staff took tents and t-shirts to barbecue cook-offs, Juneteenth celebrations, Mexican cultural festivals, church activities, little league games, and high school football games, among others.

At Newberry Pork in the Park, a barbecue festival, the vaccination team gave away t-shirts bearing the message, “Don’t lose your taste for barbecue, get vaccinated.” At the county fair, the t-shirts said, “Don’t lose your taste for fair food, get vaccinated.” People who were vaccinated during these events received a t-shirt with the word “Vaxxed” emblazoned across an outline of the state of South Carolina. Even people who weren’t vaccinated wanted the “Don’t lose your taste” t-shirts. Later, Pugh saw the t-shirts everywhere. At the Department of Motor Vehicles, at football games, and at the grocery store, county residents promoted the pro-vaccine message to anyone who took the time to read it.

“These are walking billboards. And not only billboards, it’s an implicit endorsement of the vaccine,” Pugh said.

At the tents they set up around the county, Pugh and his team learned about all sorts of barriers to vaccination.

At football games, high school students who were under 18 years old asked Pugh where they could get vaccinated against COVID-19 without their parents’ permission. He referred them to the health department because his pharmacy does require parental consent for minors to be vaccinated.

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At a barbecue cook-off, a woman rushed over and wanted to receive the vaccine in a hurry.

“She wouldn’t take the vaccine information sheet with her or anything,” Pugh recalled. “She wanted to destroy any evidence that she’d gotten the vaccine so her family wouldn’t know about it. I’m not sure where she tucked away her vaccine card.”

Vaccines were always available for administration at the tents Prosperity Drug set up at community events, but that wasn’t Pugh’s only goal. His mission was also to educate people, earn their trust, and instill vaccine confidence in the hope that they would eventually get immunized—if not right then, soon.

“It doesn’t matter if they get it from us or from somewhere else,” Pugh said. “We just want them to have the information they need to make that decision and own it.”

Community Outreach Tools to increase COVID-19 vaccine confidence and resources to Know What Drives Vaccine Confidence are available at APhA’s Vaccine Confident microsite.