Project Better Together launches unique vaccination campaign

Johnson County’s Project Better Together is looking to reach the 80 percent requirement for the county to achieve herd immunity and smoothly transition out of the pandemic.


Mark Nolte addresses a Johnson County joint entities meeting to talk about Project Better Together on April 19, 2021. Project Better Together plans to get 80 percent of Johnson County residents vaccinated by the fall.

Claire Benson

Project Better Together, a coalition of Johnson County business and development groups, launched a campaign encouraging Johnson County residents to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

The group aims for 80 percent of the county’s adult population fully vaccinated by this fall, in order to reach the requirements for herd immunity.

Johnson County Community Health Manager Sam Jarvis said roughly 65 percent of eligible residents in Johnson County had been fully vaccinated or started a two-dose series of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine as of April 30.

Project Better Together President Mark Nolte said the group is working closely with Johnson County Public Health and the University of Iowa College of Public Health on this initiative, and the group looks to use creative campaign strategies and incentive programs to encourage vaccinations.

“For the next couple months, we’re just going to do all we can to get those folks that are maybe a little hesitant to do it,” Nolte said. “Because our goal, as you know, is 80 percent for Johnson County, we want to show leadership at a state level. If we can get to that level, we can have a very normal fall on campus, we can open Kinnick Stadium back up — all those things. So, I think everyone knows why we’re doing this, and now it’s just a matter of executing it.”

Nolte said he spoke with UI Hospitals and Clinics Family Medicine Physician Rick Dobyns in August 2020, when Dobyns predicted the current situation with vaccines — that supply is exceeding demand in most areas of the state.

“Dobyns said there’s going to come a time when vaccines are kind of plentiful, and there’s going to come a time when we’re going to need to mobilize and make sure we overcome the hesitancy and get to this herd immunity,” Nolte said.

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Daniel Wasta, 28, said he was brought onto the vaccine campaign to manage public outreach.

Wasta has worked on several Democratic campaigns in the past, including as Iowa political director for Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 campaign in the Iowa caucuses. He was also the Iowa political director for President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign in the general election.

“As we’ve been seeing the shift from a supply problem to a demand problem over the last few weeks, it feels like it’s kind of necessitated a need for more of a public campaign to reach the next wave of folks that we want to make sure I get vaccinated,” Wasta said.

Wasta said officials are looking for creative, unique ways to manage vaccine confidence, which is why he believes he was brought on to help with this campaign.

“They wanted to add someone with a little bit of campaign experience, who might be able to look at the problem a little bit differently and see if there were some organizing efforts that we could do,” he said, “… or things that have worked in the past on political campaigns to try to reach out to more folks who haven’t gotten the vaccination and communicate why it’s as important as it is.”

Wasta said he is responsible for finding distinctive ways to reach all members of the public to encourage them to receive their vaccine, if they have not done so already.

Through social media posts, direct mail, phone calls, recruiting community liaisons, and welcoming all ideas of possible outreach, Wasta said it is all-hands-on-deck to form ideas as to how to best communicate with Johnson County residents.

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“Part of this position is just identifying things that we could be doing better and maybe identifying influencers within communities who can help us spread the word,” Wasta said. “We are trying to identify the best forms of outreach, so there definitely is going to be a social media campaign, but also — how are we going to communicate in rural parts of the county?”

Jarvis said, through a relationship between the Johnson County Department of Public Health Project Better Together, and other community entities, the groups can work toward a common goal of making it through the pandemic.

“It’s just a wonderful partnership and wonderful ability to work with so many other folks and get all these ideas out on the table and really work at, how can we provide the best, most up-to-date information so that people can make the best-informed choice, and we hope that is to get vaccinated,” Jarvis said.

Jarvis said, by involving a diverse range of public influences to encourage vaccinations within the community, he believes this will help Johnson County residents who are still hesitant about being vaccinated.

“Sometimes it helps hearing it from someone else in your area. Some folks, to be blunt, do not care what the Public Health Department says,” he said. “That’s very fair, it doesn’t hurt our feelings, we recognize that. But we still want to do our best to appeal and control, and certainly do our best to provide the information so people feel comfortable getting vaccinated.”