Vermonters of color to be eligible for COVID-19 vaccine starting Thursday

Published: 3/30/2021 9:38:08 PM
Modified: 3/30/2021 9:38:05 PM

Vermonters 16 and over who identify as Black, Indigenous or people of color — along with members of their household — will be able to register for the COVID-19 vaccine starting Thursday, officials announced at a Tuesday news conference.

The state also expanded eligibility to parents of children with severe medical conditions. They become eligible to register for the vaccine on Wednesday, March 31.

These eligibility categories are on top of the state’s current age-based vaccine eligibility system, which is currently open to Vermonters 50 and older.

“Our data also shows us that we have much farther to go with progress through our vaccination efforts,” said Dr. Mark Levine, the state health commissioner.

All Vermonters 16 and older are expected to be able to register for the vaccine by April 19. “We get closer to the finish line every day,” Levine said. “It’s now less than three weeks until all Vermonters are eligible to sign up for their dose of vaccine.”

Levine said the increased vaccine access for Vermonters of color was warranted by two disparities: the higher case rate among people of color and the lower vaccination rate.

Black Vermonters have had the highest rate of COVID, according to the Department of Health, with 741 cases per 10,000 people, compared to white Vermonters’ rate of 247 per 10,000 people. Asian people, Hispanic people and those of other races also have a higher COVID-19 case rate than white Vermonters.

There’s also evidence that people of color have a higher hospitalization rate in Vermont. Across the country, people of color have died at much higher rates than white people, both due to their higher case rates and their higher rate of preexisting chronic health conditions.

“Now that all Vermont residents at the highest risk of death from COVID — those in the most vulnerable age and high-risk condition groups — have been vaccinated, we can focus on preventing the other most serious risk of the virus, namely critical illness leading to hospitalization,” Levine said.

Despite that case disparity, Vermonters of color have consistently had lower vaccination rates than white people, even after Vermont opened vaccine eligibility to all household members of older Vermonters of color and started several partnerships with community groups to increase awareness.

About 30% of white Vermonters have received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to 13.6% of Black Vermonters. Every nonwhite racial group has a lower vaccination rate than white Vermonters.

The disparity is present, but reduced, when accounting for age: People of color over 65 have a vaccination rate of 65%, compared to 76% of white Vermonters over 65. Some experts have argued the state’s age-banding system is a disadvantage to Vermonters of color, who tend to contract the disease and have worse outcomes at a lower age.

Advocates and policymakers have pointed to several other reasons for the lower vaccination rate, such as lack of information for limited-English-speaking Vermonters, vaccine reluctance, and difficulty using the registration system and going to vaccine clinics by themselves.

Vermonters of color will have to self-certify their status as a member of that community, Levine said.

Sen. Kesha Ram, D-Chittenden, said she is grateful that the state is taking this step, because it “reduces confusion for already overburdened communities.”

“BIPOC Vermonters stand out and don’t want to be accused of cutting the line, so they are trying to follow the rules and guidance, and it’s not easy,” Ram said in a written message.

She said she hopes the BIPOC policy will extend to incarcerated Vermonters, as well. “I applaud Dr. Levine and Gov. (Phil) Scott, while also hoping they will have a change of heart for incarcerated people,” as Black Vermonters are imprisoned at a higher rate than white people.

Mark Hughes, executive director of the Racial Justice Alliance, said people of color have waited “far too long” for this decision.

“The impact of the delay weighs immeasurably on the BIPOC community in Vermont, and can only be viewed as one of the leading indicators of the racist policy of this administration,” he said via email.

Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County NAACP, also praised the decision to allow all people of color access to the vaccine. “I am hopeful that this access to vaccination will be extended to folks of color who are incarcerated as well,” she said.

The state has stuck with age-band eligibility for incarcerated Vermonters but announced Tuesday that all inmates should get at least their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by April 19, and that all should have second doses by May 13. However, inmates who identify as BIPOC can register Wednesday, March 31.

The NAACP is one community group that has held vaccine clinics in partnership with the state. Mia Schultz, head of the Rutland County NAACP, said she looks forward to opening up the clinics to more people.

Parents of children with severe medical conditions will become eligible for the vaccine next Monday, along with Vermonters 40 and older, Levine said. “We need to ensure that these parents and caregivers remain healthy enough to care for the child, and that they do not risk bringing the virus into the home.”

Across the state, about 36.9% of Vermonters have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 21% have been fully vaccinated. Roughly 84% of Vermonters 65 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, the highest percentage in the nation, said Financial Regulation Commissioner Michael Pieciak, who tracks the state’s COVID-19 statistics.

Scott said the state’s vaccine allocation should be 5,000 to 6,000 doses higher this week than last week, a total of nearly 30,000 doses, but doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are expected to fluctuate in the coming weeks as the company deals with supply chain issues.

Variant pulling ahead

In January, experts predicted that the B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant would become the dominant strain by March, Pieciak said during the state’s weekly statistical presentation. The variant is more easily transmitted than standard COVID-19.

However, as cases dropped through January and February, officials in many states became hopeful the variant was under control. That no longer appears to be true.

Cases are rising in 30 states, including Vermont, which came within two cases of tying its all-time record for COVID-19 cases in a single week, Pieciak said. The state reported 1,191 cases this week, up from 856 the previous week. The record of 1,193 was set in early January.

Despite the high number of cases, Pieciak said the situation is different than it was in January, as more than three-quarters of the state’s oldest Vermonters are now vaccinated. He estimated the vaccine has saved 78 lives in the past three months, although the state still reported 18 deaths in March.

Levine attributed the rise in cases to people disregarding social distancing restrictions, including travel. He said Vermont is “not immune to what’s happening in surrounding states.” Cases rose 9% this week in the Northeast region.

“Wanting the pandemic to be over, and it actually being over, are not the same thing,” Levine said. “We still need to do everything we can to reduce the spread of the virus while we vaccinate more and more Vermonters.”

He also said more Vermonters have been seeking out coronavirus tests, particularly in Chittenden County and in the Northeast Kingdom.

The state’s prediction model — the Oliver Wyman model, one of more than 30 models being used across the U.S. — predicts that cases will continue to rise, although the more general CDC model forecasts less of an increase, Pieciak said.

Cases remain particularly high among young Vermonters, with people in their 20s having the highest rate of new cases this week, Pieciak said. K-12 school cases also set a record this week.

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