By Emma Cotton/VTDigger and Polly Mikula
Around the state, slots for vaccines have filled up quickly at several clinics organized specifically for Vermonters who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and those in their households.
Megan Herrington, public health services director for the Bennington district, said around 3,000 Vermonters who qualified registered for the vaccine soon after Gov. Phil Scott opened eligibility for people of color.
“If we tried to do a one-size-fits-all, then we leave people out,” she said. “The strategy of having a BIPOC-specific clinic, it’s another tool in the toolbox.”
While 39.8% of white Vermonters have received their first dose of the vaccine, only 19.7% of people who are Black or African American, 23.6% of people who identify as Asian, 9.4% of Indigenous people and 4.4% of Vermont’s Pacific Islander population have received their first dose, as of April 6.
On Saturday, April 10, 2021 Lt. Governor Molly Gray joined the Rutland area NAACP as well as state of Vermont employees in volunteering at a BIPOC vaccination clinic. Over the course of the day, Lt. Governor Gray supported the vaccination of over 150 Vermonters, volunteering as an intake worker for those receiving the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
“I was pleased to join healthcare workers who have worked tirelessly to deploy vaccines as well as volunteers from the Agency of Agriculture and the Department of Environmental Conservation in helping eligible Vermonters receive their first vaccine,” Gray said. “I’m proud to be part of the effort to ensure that individuals and families who are at a higher risk are prioritized and to do my part to bring this pandemic to a close.”
The clinic was coordinated by La’Keiah M. Gillespie, NCMA, NCPT. “It was an honor that the NAACP reached out to me to be the coordinator of the Rutland BIPOC Covid Vaccine Clinic. We had an amazing turnout on both April 3 and April 10. 401 people vaccinated in our community.”
Gillespie continued, “It filled my heart to be able to help the BIPOC community and their families to understand what the vaccine is and why it’s important for us as a community to get the vaccine. I think everyone loved the personal touch of me being able to call and talk to each individual person to answer questions and get them scheduled and not a machine or computer. The staff with the Vermont Department of Health was amazing. I couldn’t have asked for things to go any better.”
Watching vaccination rates for people of color fall behind that of the rest of Vermont’s population — and knowing that Covid-19 disproportionately endangers people of color — Wichie Artu, with the Windham County NAACP, decided local clinics could help.
Organizers of clinics in Rutland, Brattleboro and Bennington have pointed to barriers such as accessibility, transportation and distrust of a medical system that has historically mistreated people of color as reasons why clinics to serve such groups are important.
Artu said the health department has worked closely with local chapters of the NAACP and other groups, like the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, to organize the events, with the health department running the clinics and the advocacy organizations acting as community liaisons.
They’ve worked through those barriers while organizing the clinics, creating spaces where they hope attendees will feel welcome, Artu said. Instead of holding them in health department offices or hospitals, they have sought out neutral spaces, such as schools and churches.
“Not only is the government famous for being slow and convoluted and confusing, it’s also been known to do experiments on people of color,” Artu said. “It’s also been known for giving information over to ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement). So the government has this reputation with our communities, and my role was to create a very big divisive line and create a security layer for our people.”
Artu said he made sure that those receiving the vaccine maintained control over the personal identifying information they provided at the clinic.
Patricia Johnson, an emergency room nurse at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center who has been advocating for equity in health care, organized the clinic in Bennington.
Greetings at the doors of the Bennington clinic were marked with choruses of thanks, both from the clinic organizers and the attendees. Johnson took a number of measures to make attendees feel welcome, including ensuring that the demographic makeup of health care workers at the clinic represented those who came for vaccines.
“People trust those who look like them,” she said. “They feel comforted by another person of color treating them and creating a care plan or educating them.”
Held at the Second Congregational Church near downtown, Johnson said she hoped people of color might feel welcomed by the space, whose street-facing exterior displays “Black Lives Matter” and “Immigrants and Refugees, Welcome” banners.
“Church is a place that people recognize as being safe and a place where you’re always welcomed,” Johnson said.
Some who came to be vaccinated said the clinic was easier to access than the registration through the health department website. Attendees heard about the clinic through word of mouth, the NAACP’s social media pages or one of the organization’s community partners.
“The word spread faster,” said Tina Cook, who recently ran for Bennington’s Select Board. “The information would have normally not traveled through this many layers.”
Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland Area NAACP, which extends to Bennington and Addison counties, was among the first people to receive the vaccine at Saturday’s clinic.
“People can come here and feel comfortable and feel welcome and feel safe and see people like them getting the vaccines. It’s needed, and it’s a beautiful sight to me,” Schultz said.
While hospitals and some clinics are staffed with police officers, Johnson invited Beau Alexander, a security guard from Southwestern Vermont Medical Center who came without a uniform, to make sure the entrance of the clinic remained peaceful.
“We have gotten a few intake forms that were not so friendly and racist. So in order to protect people who want to come here and get the vaccine, he’s offered his time and full day to ensure the safety of everyone in this building,” she said.
Organizers in Windham County avoided police presence, too.
“We were in contact with the Quaker community and the white ally community to make sure that we had people around, or at least there to call on, if there were de-escalation things that needed to happen,” said Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County NAACP.