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A Santa Rosa doctor’s fight against vaccine hesitancy, one gentle conversation at a time

Sunday afternoon in Depot Park, Dr. Brian Prystowsky spent more than 10 minutes calmly trying to talk Mark Walter Evans, an older man who has recently become homeless, into getting a coronavirus vaccination. It wasn’t going well.

Evans set aside his banjo long enough to explain that he had already been walloped by virus. He believes he has antibodies, and he doesn’t trust Big Pharma or the mainstream media. Prystowsky had answers for Evans, but they weren’t enough to convince him, at least not Sunday.

It seemed like a lot of time for a respected Sutter Health pediatrician to invest in one naysayer when dozens of other potential vaccine recipients were mingling around Railroad Square, a few blocks away from a weekend health fair.

But it’s the only approach Prystowsky knows.

“You could argue spending 15 minutes with that gentleman was taking away from something else,” he said. “But you never know when one of these conversations may have an impact. I often run late, for that exact reason. Because someone says ‘I need you.’”

Sonoma County’s vaccination campaign has needed Brian Prystowsky for months now, and he has never stopped responding. Of the legions of employees and volunteers who have made the program work, few have been as crucial.

Prystowsky has ordered 8-foot signs that said #ThisIsOurShot and mass-produced Loteria-style posters picturing a syringe and the phrase “La Vacuna Cura” — the Vaccine Cures.

The posters designed by local artist Martin Zuniga are up at local churches, parks and farmworker quarters with accompanying inspirational messages.

Prystowsky wrote a Disneyesque song, “Vacuna Matata,” and recorded an educational video with an elephant hand puppet. He has done up to 20 Q&A’s for employees of various businesses, he estimated. He’s got another scheduled this Wednesday, at River Rock Casino in Geyserville. Start time: 6 a.m.

“I was doing sometimes three Zooms a day,” Prystowsky said. “For efficiency, you might say it doesn’t make sense to talk to a small population. But every population matters.”

The labor-intensive side of the vaccination effort is more important than ever now.

In the frantic days of late winter, when vaccine supply couldn’t come close to demand, the key was setting up mass vaccination centers that could deliver hundreds of doses per day. Finding takers was easy.

Lately, with supply robust and most county residents vaccinated, that is not the case.

The vaccination campaign now is a slower ground game, a grinding search for eligible takers in the more than 25% of the local population who have yet to receive one dose.

The contrast in vaccination numbers is stark. On April 15, at the peak of the local effort, Sonoma County recorded administering 7,525 doses. By June 4, the daily output was 2,702. The peak last week: 1,236 daily doses.

The effort has dropped off dramatically, if not stagnated.

But with 66% of the county’s eligible population fully vaccinated and just under 75% having received at least one dose, one might reasonably ask: Does it matter that vaccinations have slowed?

Yes, without a doubt, according to the people most deeply involved.

“We know people getting sick are the ones who are unvaccinated,” said Dr. Urmila Shende, Sonoma County’s vaccine chief. “And our daily case rate continues to be high, and is increasing. Also, the more unvaccinated people there are, the more chance a variant can develop.”

About 87% of new coronavirus cases lately have been among the unvaccinated, a figure that rises to 95% in the local Latino population, Shende said.

She is openly worried about the Fourth of July weekend, noting that most transmission lately has come from gatherings. Shende is practically begging unvaccinated people to stay home this weekend and “WEAR A MASK!” as she texted in all-caps.

Prystowsky agrees with all of that. But for him, it’s almost beside the point. He views the vaccination effort not as a public health official, but as a front-line pediatrician.

“If someone is unvaccinated who might get hurt by the coronavirus, their individual needs matter,” Prystowsky said. “I don’t like people to be lost in the shuffle.”

He is far from alone in this battle. Community health centers, Latino outreach workers known as promotoras and groups including the Sonoma County Medical Association and La Familia Sana have been crucial in getting doses to hard-to-reach communities. But Prystowsky is front and center.

“From the beginning, he took the time to delve into the details and the facts about the vaccines,” Shende said. “In a really significant, impactful way.”

The key for Prystowsky has been one-on-one interactions. He signed up for more of those Sunday, at a health fair hosted by Love & Light SoCo at the Arlene Francis Center.

The fair was joyous, with a DJ spinning beats and lines of tables offering everything from CBD topicals to information on tenant rights. There was also a vaccination pop-up, staffed mostly by Providence Health workers.

There was just one problem: Not many people were walking in to ask for shots. So the doctor started pounding the pavement, looking for candidates. In tow was his 7-year-old son, Sal, who passed out stickers while wearing a full Yankees Little League uniform.

Dr. Prystowsky paced through Railroad Square in his white doctor’s coat, elephant puppet tucked into the breast pocket. He went into bars and restaurants, and asked everyone he encountered if they had been vaccinated.

“I’m really aggressive,” Prystowsky explained.

“Assertive” might be more accurate. His manner was unfailingly gentle and welcoming as he made his rounds.

Predictably, most people he met had already been vaccinated.

And by now, with the vaccine pump fully primed, you might think anyone who hadn’t gotten a shot probably never will — that their political, religious or conspiratorial convictions make this vaccine anathema. Prystowsky’s walk debunked that.

Five or 10 minutes in, he came upon a woman in a pink dress, carrying takeout boxes down Davis Street. No, she had not been vaccinated. But she was willing to talk about it.

Her name was Vanessa Barone. She lives in San Francisco and she had valid concerns about getting the shot. One by one, Prystowsky addressed them.

Barone has a serious autoimmune disorder related to neutropenia. Would the vaccine make her sick? That condition was even more reason to get vaccinated, Prystowsky said. And there’s nothing alive in there to harm her? No, he said.

But she can’t afford to miss a day of work, Barone said.

Just her luck, Prystowsky answered: The pop-up clinic happened to have some doses of Johnson & Johnson, which typically has milder side effects than Pfizer or Moderna. Barone said she’d give it a try.

“This is the first person we’ve actually been able to help,” Sal Prystowsky said, practically dancing in his uniform. “It’s so exciting!”

It was. And Brian Prystowsky would have other successes.

At Nimble & Finn’s ice cream shop, a couple said they’d call their 14-year-old daughter, who had gotten one shot of Pfizer, but was unable to receive her second because the family car broke down Friday.

At Chevy’s Mexican restaurant, Prystowsky found a teenager, sharing a meal with his mom, who had not been vaccinated. Joey Bonfigli, 17, just hadn’t felt the need. A half-hour later, Prystowsky saw the teen in the waiting area at Arlene Francis Center.

A few people were hostile. One young guy shouted “Don’t do it!” and scowled as Prystowsky spoke to Evans in Depot Park. Two restaurant managers asked him not to engage customers.

It was a lot of work. Especially when it came to Abby Gignilliat.

The 21-year-old Sonoma State senior was serving scoops at Nimble & Finn’s when Prystowsky found her. Gignilliat, who had contracted the virus at the end of November, said she was open to getting a vaccination that day. Unfortunately, she didn’t finish work until 7 p.m., two hours after the clinic would close.

“You want us to send somebody here?” Prystowsky asked.

“If you had a chance to do that, I would be interested,” Gignilliat said.

Improbably, Brandi Lazorek, chief nursing officer for Providence in Northern California, wound up following the doctor back to the ice cream parlor. That evening, Abby Gignilliat, who had awoken Sunday to a text from her mother imploring her to get vaccinated, became one of the 323,464 Sonoma County residents to have received at least one dose.

At most, Prystowsky had gotten a half-dozen people into the system Sunday. Was it enough?

“We’re all like prisoners to our experiences,” he said later. “Once you’ve seen someone suffer with an illness, you do everything you can to prevent that from happening again. The noes don’t hurt. The yeses feel like a big victory.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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