BRATTLEBORO — Wichie Artu hopes the success of vaccination clinics reaching racial groups disproportionately affected by COVID-19 is used as a model in future health initiatives and infrastructure.
“I plan to be in conversations with different racial justice organizations in Vermont including in those places that usually don’t have advocacy,” said Artu, who is second vice president of the Windham County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “It’s just got to keep going.”
Work towards a more equitable health care system doesn’t stop after the COVID-19 pandemic, Artu said. He noted the Vermont Legislature is considering a bill that would create the Office of Health Equity.
Artu became aware that the Vermont Department of Health was looking for partners to vaccinate Black, Indigenous, People of Color or BIPOC communities through conversations with committees he serves on. He’s on the local BIPOC Health Justice Committee, a subcommittee of the Community Equity Collaborative, representing Brattleboro Memorial Hospital as a data analytics specialist. He’s also on the statewide COVID Vaccination Implementation Advisory Committee on behalf of the Brattleboro-based Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity.
When members of the local NAACP branch started to learn and understand racial disparities related to COVID-19, they looked at ways to advocate for people of color. They sought to set up a clinic to make the process of getting vaccinated easier, Artu said.
They partnered with the Department of Health, which runs the clinics with vaccinators and volunteers. Artu called the NAACP "the architect behind the model, the community liaison and the scheduler for the clinic."
As of Thursday morning, all people of color 16 and older are eligible for the vaccines in Vermont. Artu had been among the advocates for the move. He said data showed people of color were disproportionately affected by the virus because they tend to live in multigenerational households, hold essential jobs, have less health insurance and don’t speak English.
“Our data shows that BIPOC Vermonters are more likely to get COVID-19 compared to white non-Hispanic Vermonters,” Dr. Mark Levine, Vermont’s health commissioner, said at a news conference in March where plans to step up vaccinations for BIPOC residents were outlined. “They have significantly higher hospitalization rates and rates of most chronic diseases, often related to issues of higher exposures to COVID due to types of employment and transportation issues.”
At first, Burlington alone offered vaccination clinics for BIPOC residents who met eligibility requirements and members of their households. Brattleboro then had two before efforts in the southern part of the state expanded last Saturday to include clinics in Bennington and Rutland.
Saturday will be the last clinic in Brattleboro specifically for BIPOC residents and it will be for those who are 18 and older. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only one dose, will be administered from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at World Learning at 1 Kipling Road.
At the Second Congregational Church in Bennington and Rutland High School, the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine will be administered to BIPOC community members who are 16 and older 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday. The second dose will be given in the same times and places May 1.
Spots are still available, Artu said. He can be reached to schedule appointments or share information at email@example.com or 802-297-7832. Free transportation, interpretation and other accommodations such as wheelchairs or visual guides are available.
After Saturday, BIPOC community members are advised to call the Department of Health at 855-722-7878 to book an appointment. But Artu said he can still help people facing barriers in the process.
Eligibility rules for BIPOC household members initially were “super complicated,” he said. Someone in the household had to be 60 or older, have a high-risk condition according to state or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, or work in a k-12 school, child care, public safety or health care.
“Half of our job was explaining the eligibility,” Artu said.
He said the first clinic in Brattleboro filled up with appointments within 24 hours and 50 percent of the people who came didn’t speak English.
“Through this effort, it’s been really interesting,” he said. “We also serve as educators.”
He said educational sessions about the COVID vaccines have been set up with the University of Vermont.
In a statement issued Monday in response to criticism that prioritizing vaccinations for BIPOC community is racist, Gov. Phil Scott said Vermont’s data currently shows the population is at increased risk of hospitalization from the virus.
“This is a population of our neighbors already facing health equity disadvantages as a result of historical inequities and injustices, “ he said. “In addition to the greater risk of hospitalization among BIPOC community members, the pace of vaccination for these individuals is too far behind the white population. With a rate of 20.2 percent of the BIPOC population having received at least one dose of vaccine as compared with non-Hispanic Whites (33.4 percent), we need to do more to close this gap – both as a matter of equity and to help decrease the risk of hospitalizations.”
Scott called the disparities “unacceptable” and cited them in his reasoning for opening vaccine registration to all BIPOC Vermonters who are 16 and older and their households.
“Unfortunately, the legacy of racism in America, and in Vermont, still drives a lot of anger and fear,” he said. “Recently, my office, the Health Department and those hardworking individuals getting us vaccinated, have been subjected to vitriolic and inappropriate comments in social media and other forums regarding this decision. This too is unacceptable. And it is evidence that many Americans, and many Vermonters, still have a lot to learn about the impacts of racism in our country and how it has influenced public policy over the years.”
Scott urged people to respect one another.
“And to my fellow Vermonters who find themselves the target of these comments and actions of prejudice, please know that we stand with you,” he said. “Do not be intimidated by the hate speech. Do not allow these comments of racism to keep you from getting vaccinated or from anything you deserve as members of the Vermont community.”
This article was updated Tuesday to include more information about how the clinics were organized.