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State launches new program to improve COVID-19 vaccination rates in rural communities

The goal is to grab unvaccinated people's attention in a creative way.

BEAUMONT, Texas — COVID-19 is affecting rural communities at higher rates and part of that reason is lower vaccination rates.

The Texas Department of State Health Services is trying to relieve some of the vaccine hesitancy. They've partnered with Walmart to set up shop in their parking lots to simply be in communities and provide opportunities to talk.

Outreach manager Robert Santiago is no stranger to the phrase "new normal."

“I had my own store for over 20 years in San Antonio,” Santiago said.

From a businessman to an outreach manager, nowadays, you can find Santiago in a Walmart parking lot starting conversations.

“When I sold it, I decided I'd like to do something, just giving back so I connected with a company that does public messaging for the state,” Santiago said.

He's interacting with rural communities like Jasper County to help improve vaccination rates.

“We're just getting the basic information, let them know that the vaccines are available every day in the pharmacies open,” Santiago said.

The goal is to grab unvaccinated people's attention in a creative way.

“We've got basketball, take the shot game,” Santiago said. “We've got a spinner with some vaccine info and get some candy, and most importantly, this background behind me, we're encouraging people to take selfies, post them, hashtag Healthy Texas.”

As the nation works to reach herd immunity, Jasper County Judge Mark Allen appreciates what the state is doing.

“I think to establish full herd immunity, it's what's going to take is going to take more people getting vaccinated and working together to protect their family members, their co-workers, their church members, and everybody just coming together,” Allen said.

44 percent of people 12 and older have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 38 percent of the county is fully vaccinated.

And day by day, Santiago said he's willing to do the work to see those numbers climb.

“I would just encourage them to do their research and find out about the safety and efficacy of any of the vaccines,” Santiago said.

Through the DSHS’ educational campaign, they're visiting a total of 18 Walmart locations to encourage Texans 12 and older to get vaccinated.

This month's primary focus is smaller communities and rural areas in Texas.

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