Left behind: people on the margins struggle to obtain vaccine

A worker at Lumen Field Event Center in Seattle holds up a sign March 13, 2021, to signal that a station for administering the COVID-19 vaccine needed more doses. (CNS photo/Lindsey Wasson, Reuters)

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

All Iowans could be eligible to receive the vaccine to protect them from COVID-19 beginning April 5, provided the federal supply continues to increase as projected, Gov. Kim Reynolds said last week. That is encouraging news for Iowans who become aware of the news and have time, flexibility and access to transportation to secure an appointment and receive a vaccination. For Iowans working inflexible shifts in low-income jobs, those without homes, with mental illness, addiction, a language barrier or fear of being deported — obtaining the vaccine is a daunting hurdle at a time when deadlier variants of the virus have arrived.

The Iowa Department of Public Health coordinates the COVID-19 vaccine distribution effort in Iowa, but not the distribution sites, which throws confusion and frustration into the quest for a vaccine appointment, even for people comfortable with navigating pharmacy and grocery store portals.

The state’s 211-call center assists Iowans age 65 and older with scheduling appointments. That leaves younger individuals without computer access in danger of exclusion at a critical point in the pandemic.

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The Social Action Office of the Diocese of Davenport has been fielding calls from Iowans seeking help with the registration process. “Those who are more comfortable speaking Spanish or other languages, and those who also don’t have access to a computer, are ones who are expressing frustrations with a tedious vaccine reservation process,” said Kent Ferris, director of the Social Action Office. There are 144 languages spoken in Iowa.

“Many portals free up places in a temporary batch clinic at odd hours of the day or night. Many portals have prompts only in English if trying to navigate a phone system, with an inconsistent patchwork of qualifying pre-existing medical conditions, age parameters or geographical boundaries.

Some essential worker job sites have provided information to workers, others have not.”

It is a challenge nationally. “The data the federal government received from the states has confirmed concerns that the vaccine is not reaching underserved populations at an equitable pace. Vaccine access and convenience have been persistent problems, Black doctors and community leaders said, as have vaccine hesitancy and skepticism” (Quad-City Times, 3-21-21).

One agency committed to reaching the most vulnerable populations in its jurisdiction is Community Health Care, Inc. (CHC), based in Davenport, which serves the Quad-Cities area, including Scott and Clinton counties in Iowa. CHC’s mission “is to provide the communities we serve with excellence in patient-centered medical, dental and behavioral health care that is compassionate, affordable and accessible.” That commitment includes vaccination distribution.

Bob Davis, Outreach Program Manager for CHC, said the agency is getting into local communities with a mobile vaccination unit. “We’re going into the African American communities, the homeless communities, anyone struggling to get vaccinated,” he said. That includes people living in shelters, on the streets, in treatment centers or recently released from prison. The mobile unit travels wherever a church or agency is willing to assist with the effort. The unit has traveled to shelters, hotels accommodating the overflow from homeless shelters and other sites. Davis gets the word out at regular meetings of local social service agencies and through email notices. He is in contact with the Diocese of Davenport’s Social Action Office about the possibility of coordinating a mobile unit, he said. CHC, however, does not cover all 22 counties in the diocese.

A co-founder of the Iowa City Catholic Worker, which provides hospitality to people in need in the Iowa City area, expresses frustration with vaccine access, but also offers a suggestion. “The biggest issues are lack of information on eligibility and lack of vaccine pop-up locations that serve their community,” said David Goodner. “For example, if someone could come set up at the Catholic Worker with vaccines, we could get a ton of immigrants and refugees vaccinated.”

Goodner wants Iowa to provide pop-up clinics at the Catholic Worker and at church sites and other smaller communities where members know and trust their leaders. He shared a letter from the Johnson County Interfaith Coalition, which asked Gov. Reynolds and other state leaders to provide pop-up vaccination clinics for several reasons. The letter reads, in part:

“We are concerned that Johnson County and the State of Iowa have failed to prioritize clergy in their vaccination and distribution plans despite federal guidance defining clergy as essential workers. Clergy do important work on the frontlines and on the margins of society. We have significant contact with the public in places of worship, private homes, hospitals, soup kitchens, jails and prisons; and we face similar risks of exposure as other essential workers. We are also concerned that poor and homeless people and Iowans being held in county jails and state prisons have not been prioritized for vaccination. … To improve access, vaccination stations should be set up in marginalized communities and places of worship. We urge you to take the necessary steps to ensure that these vulnerable citizens are protected immediately.”

Ferris said that the struggle for vaccine access in many ways “mirrors the challenges faced early in the pandemic,” when the most vulnerable people lacked awareness or avoided calling attention to themselves for fear of repercussions from government agencies. “Now we are about to enter another potentially dangerous time with new variants of the virus, and getting folks vaccinated becomes a race against time.”

Just this past week, he responded to a voice mail from the Governor’s Office “asking for input on vaccine rollout to our parts of the state.” Ferris is encouraged by “the outreach to us.”

For vaccine information, please visit
coronavirus.iowa.gov/pages/vaccineinformation and the Diocese of Davenport webpage davenportdiocese.org/flu.


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