Why Vermont adopted its BIPOC vaccination strategy

By Charlotte Gehring and Jack Summersby

Pia Contreras
State health officials have pursued different initiatives to combat the undervaccination of BIPOC residents from Covid-19, a national trend.

State health officials have ramped up efforts to prioritize the vaccination of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities, which are disproportionately affected by Covid-19. In addition to higher rates of infection and hospitalization from Covid-19, BIPOC vaccine rates are lagging behind Gov. Scott’s intended rates, leading officials to pursue new strategies.

Prioritizing BIPOC Vermonters

All BIPOC Vermonters over the age of 16 became eligible to register for vaccination on April 1, regardless of pre-existing eligibility. Previously, only BIPOC individuals eligible by age, occupation or health condition could schedule appointments for themselves and members of their household. 

BIPOC individuals were prioritized because of disproportionate hospitalization rates and underperforming vaccination rates, according to State Health Commissioner Mark Levine.

BIPOC Vermonters account for 8% of all Covid-19 cases in the state, despite composing only 6.8% of the state population, according to the VT Dept. of Health

In addition, the health department’s vaccine dashboard (as of April 6) shows that people of color are not being vaccinated at a proportional rate to white Vermonters — 26.3% of BIPOC Vermonters have received at least one dose of the vaccine, as compared to 49.1% of white Vermonters. 

Still — as more Vermonters become eligible — these rates are still an improvement from March 20, when 12.7% of the Black population statewide have received one dose compared to 29.9% of White residents. [

Gov. Phil Scott also stated on March 30 that college students are not eligible to make appointments unless they intend to remain in Vermont for the summer. The news came as a surprise to BIPOC students, since many had already made appointments or received a first dose. And many white students who had BIPOC housemates also made appointments in the weeks leading up to the announcement. 

The college released an update on April 1 advising all students with existing appointments or a first dose to keep their appointments. They also noted that Vermont students identifying as BIPOC — and their housemates — were eligible for the vaccine, and could obtain a special code from Miguel Fernández or Naomi Neff to schedule an appointment. 

In addition to placing BIPOC Vermonters ahead in the eligibility sequence, Vermont health officials are also hoping to improve the accessibility of the Covid-19 vaccines through translation services, community outreach and targeted clinics for BIPOC communities across the state. 

Currently, BIPOC Vermonters can make an appointment at a community vaccination site, a pharmacy or a BIPOC-community focused clinic. 

Discontent in the Community

Despite Vermont’s efforts, many community leaders have criticized its initial vaccination strategy, which identified priority groups by age instead of occupation. 

Vermont’s decision to not put essential workers in an early category excluded many Vermonters of color who are at risk of getting the virus, Anne Sosin said in a VTDigger article. Sosin is the program director for the Center for Global Health Equity at Dartmouth College. 

However, the state defended its decision to vaccinate by age, citing that the majority of Covid-19 related deaths have affected patients over 65, informing an age-based system. 

The Brattleboro area BIPOC Health Justice Committee also wrote to the vaccine advisory panel to raise concerns about the racial disparity in vaccine rates. The committee suggested prioritizing particularly vulnerable groups with a disproportionate number of people of color, such as migrant workers, food-insecure Vermonters and essential workers, as well as teachers given the high infection rate of coronavirus among children of color. 

The committee’s letter sparked debate  about how Vermont should recognize equity issues, according to state Sen. Kesha Ram; however, the panel advised the state to administer the vaccine equally to people of color within each age group rather than putting a demographic in a higher category altogether. 

Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County NAACP, told VTDigger that there needs to be a greater effort by the Vermont Department of Health to ensure equity in access to information for limited English proficiency residents on their website and in public communications. 

“The state should consider if it’s presenting public health information through the lens of Whiteness,” he said. “For anyone participating, ask yourself, ‘Am I framing it through the view of white people? Am I talking to Black and Brown Vermonters?’”

Health care officials reported that members of communities of color, particularly Black communities, are reluctant to get the vaccine given the centuries-long history of discrimination and mistreatment against them within the medical community. 

President of the Rutland area NAACP Mia Schultz told VTDigger that “longstanding ‘issues of trust’” have contributed to vaccine hesitancy among people of color. Schultz’s 93-year-old grandmother has said she’s not sure about getting the vaccine. “That comes from a real place,” Schultz said. “This has to be approached with cultural humility.”