Confusion spreads as students of color receive conflicting information on Covid-19 vaccinations

By Ideal Dowling

Van Barth
Middlebury Union High School is serving as one of the Covid-19 vaccination sites for students who scheduled appointments through the Department of Health.

Before April 1, the official Vermont state Covid-19 vaccine eligibility guidelines did not permit Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) to schedule a vaccination appointment unless they fell into other eligibility categories. However, a number of BIPOC students received contradictory information both by word of mouth and directly from Health Department call center workers and — believing they were eligible — successfully signed up for appointments for as early as April 6.

By Sunday, March 28, word had spread through campus, misleadingly, that all BIPOC students were eligible. 

“I heard about it from my friend, who texted me saying, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you saw, but Vermont is vaccinating BIPOC residents,’” said Henry Ganey ’22.

Part of the confusion over BIPOC eligibility in Vermont may have arisen from language regarding eligible groups on the Vermont Department of Health and pharmacy websites.

Kinney Drugs, one of the pharmacies offering vaccination appointments, listed eligible groups on their website including a bullet stating “BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) Vermonters and their households,” seeming to imply that all BIPOC Vermonters would automatically be eligible. However, operators of Kinney’s vaccine hotline clarified to The Campus that only those living in a household with an already-eligible BIPOC Vermonter qualified.

The eligibility section of the Vermont Department of Health’s website read, “If you live with a person who identifies as Black, Indigenous or a person of color (BIPOC), including anyone with Abenaki or other First Nations heritage, and is eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine, you can also sign up to get a vaccine.”

Although the site later clarified its language, many students were left with the impression that all BIPOC individuals were eligible, leading to screenshots of the page being shared widely on social media alongside guidance to book a vaccine appointment. 

While the site did not state that BIPOC who were not otherwise eligible — due to age group, occupation or health conditions — could receive the vaccine, call center workers also repeatedly signed up BIPOC students and reaffirmed their eligibility solely by virtue of their racial identity. 

Citlali Aguilera-Rico ’23 was uncertain whether a dorm could be classified as a household, so she called the Department of Health for clarification. “The language was pretty confusing on the website. I called, they went through the list of pre-existing conditions, and I said no to all of them. Then I said I was Latina, and the woman said ‘Yup, that makes you eligible,’” Aguilera-Rico recounted.

Aguilera-Rico shared that she was initially uneasy after realizing that she had actually not been eligible to make an appointment but ultimately feels the fault lies with the Health Department. 

“After I found out I wasn’t eligible, I felt super guilty, but then people were telling me, ‘Don’t feel guilty, they’re trying to make this confusing on purpose,’” she said. 

Maya Gee ’22, who is scheduled to receive her first dose on April 6, spoke about the mixed messages she encountered about her eligibility before she made her appointment on Sunday.

“At first, I thought I was qualified because I saw an Instagram story that said I was, but then I was told by someone else that I was not because it was only household,” she said. “But then, other BIPOC friends of mine who had signed up told me I was qualified, so I called the Department of Health.” 

Ganey noted that the call center worker did not ask for any proof of eligibility or even seem to take the time to check the guidelines after Ganey asked for confirmation about his own status.

“I called to ask if I was eligible, and the person just started asking for my information and said ‘Alright, looks like you’re signed up for Tuesday the 6th,’” he said. 

Rasika Iyer ’22 also successfully scheduled a vaccine appointment through the Health Department. But after hearing that she might not be eligible after all, she called the Health Department back the next day to seek clarification and spent about 45 minutes being transferred and put on hold before receiving an answer. 

“I was connected to someone who told me that they were also confused about what eligibility is for BIPOC and that others had called to ask about this,” she said. “It seemed like I got connected to someone from a different call center because at one point they gave me the same number to the Health Department I had originally called and told me to ask the Health Department.”

Still unsure after the call, Iyer moved her appointment using the online portal to after April 19 — the date when all residents 16 and over would be eligible to register for the vaccine. 

Ganey speculated that lack of training might be a reason for the inconsistency in vaccine policy. 

“It seems like sometimes you’ll get a volunteer on the phone and then sometimes you’ll get an employee who actually knows the requirements,” he said. 

Katie Warchut, public health communication officer at the Vermont Department of Health, could not offer an explanation with certainty for why some non-eligible individuals were given appointments this week. 

“We work with a group of trained individuals who receive updated guidance on a regular basis on how to register people for vaccination. Current guidance is that if someone calls and says they are part of an eligible BIPOC household, they will be able to register,” Warchut wrote in an email to The Campus. “It’s certainly possible there was some misunderstanding or confusion that extended to the call center [over BIPOC eligibility] as policies evolved.”

Some white students were able to sign up for a vaccine appointment under the household rule. Mendel Baljon ’21, who lives in an on-campus suite with two BIPOC students, called the Health Department to confirm his eligibility shortly after his suitemates made their own appointments on March 28. Baljon said he became aware of his potential eligibility after seeing on Instagram that all household members of BIPOC were eligible. 

“I called the phone number to make an appointment, I told them twice I was white but both of my housemates were BIPOC, and they had no issue with it,” Baljon said. “I figured they would turn me down over the phone if I wasn’t eligible, but the whole call took a minute.” 

Other students have not been able to make a vaccine appointment so easily. Emily Ballou ’21 called the Health Department to check her eligibility as a permanent Vermont resident in a BIPOC household where one member — her father — was vaccinated because of his health condition. Ballou was initially told that both her parents needed to be eligible before she could also sign up for an appointment. Only after her mother became eligible on March 28 under the 50 and up age bracket was Ballou able to schedule her own appointment.   

As a native Vermonter, Ballou expressed some discomfort with the reality that, due to the confusion, many college students have vaccine appointments scheduled for earlier than they were eligible — and many before native Vermonters who had been waiting.

“My mom called to register, and her appointment is weeks away. It does not sit right with me that a lot of students have used this loophole of using the college address to bypass so many Vermonters who have already been waiting,” she said. 

Comments from various students about their excitement over receiving a vaccination soon, which sometimes seems to arise from a desire to return to normal rather than from actual health concerns, have increased Ballou’s frustration.

“I’ve been hearing Middlebury students say, ‘I’m so excited I’m getting the vax, this means I’ll be safe and can have actual fun for senior week,’” she said. 

Starting April 1, the vaccine eligibility in Vermont is officially expanded to all BIPOC permanent residents ages 16 and up, and all permanent residents ages 16 and up will become eligible on April 19. 

Even so, Gov. Phil Scott announced on Tuesday that out-of-state college students are not eligible to receive the vaccine in Vermont. This development has left many BIPOC students who are not Vermont residents unsure about the appointments they have scheduled in the coming weeks, as they worry about breaking the newly-revealed guidelines. 

Emily Ballou is an Arts & Culture editor for The Campus.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Ballou’s father was vaccinated because of his occupation. He was vaccinated because of his health condition.