By Bridget Manley, publisher
Christina Rivera, part of the senior lead ministry team at the Church of the Larger Fellowship, spends her days ministering to those in the Valley, including pastoral care for those suffering from COVID-19 and their families.
Because of her work, she was eager to register with the Virginia Department of Health’s website to alert her when the vaccine was available for her group. She gave her age, occupation and health status as part of the registration. She was excited when she received an email telling her she had been approved for the vaccine and asked to make an appointment with Sentara RMH.
When she arrived for her scheduled vaccine appointment, Rivera, who is Latina, said she was denied the vaccine by the person working the vaccination check-in, who also refused to check her appointment confirmations, and eventually had Rivera escorted out of the hospital by security.
Sentara responded to questions from The Citizen by issuing a statement that said some people in the community were erroneously notified about vaccine appointments, but the statement didn’t address Rivera’s situation or how she said the hospital treated her.
Rivera’s experience comes after a new CDC report that said of the vaccines that were administered through mid-January, only 11.5% were given to Latinos, and only 5.4% were given to Black people.
Those numbers are in stark difference to deaths in the United States. The COVID Tracking Project found that Latinos die at a rate 1.2 times higher than white people, and Black people die at a rate 1.5 times higher than white people.
The pandemic has highlighted racial discrimination in healthcare and how it can be a major barrier in Americans getting the care they need.
‘I chose safety’
Rivera said four days after she filled out the vaccination registration online, she received an email from Sentara Healthcare’s vice president of clinical effectiveness, telling her she could make an appointment to receive the vaccine.
The appointment registration through Sentara again asked for her occupation, which she provided, and she was sent an automatic confirmation for an appointment on Friday, Jan. 29.
“I was really, really excited,” Rivera said. “As a clergy person, I’ve had to turn down some in-person memorials when the COVID restrictions were really high…this made me feel like I was going to be able to give pastoral care to folks without fear of — not so much fear of my getting it, but fear of spreading it.”
She even began to think about how she would minister to black and brown communities and thought she could be of help to those who didn’t know how to register for the vaccine in navigating the online portals.
“I was going to ask them to take a picture of me while I got the vaccine, so that I could post it, and post it bilingually, so that our communities could know that this is something that people that they trust are getting, so that there is a growing trust in the vaccine,” Rivera said.
In a blog post Rivera later wrote about her experience, she noted that a woman ahead in line confirmed her name to the staff and was sent in for her vaccination without question.
Rivera said she then gave her name and they confirmed her name was on the list. But then, according to Rivera, something changed.
“She looked at me, and she said, ‘Are you an RMH employee’? And I said, ‘No, I’m not’, but I’m community health clergy,” Rivera said as she showed her badge.
The staff member then said she was not eligible for the vaccine, even though Rivera had been approved through the Virginia Department of Health and confirmed an appointment with Sentara. Sentara staff told Rivera to contact the health department, she said. She called and spoke to a Health Department official, who told her the email was her confirmation, Rivera said.
Still, Rivera was denied.
She said the staff then told her to contact the Sentara vice president who originally sent the appointment email. Rivera, who had driven 40 minutes to the appointment, said a staff member from that office told her they would look into it, so Rivera decided to wait in the hospital’s cafe to see if she could get an answer before driving home.
A few minutes later, security arrived. First, it was one security officer, who asked how she was doing.
“I’m a brown skinned woman in the United States, and when a security officer makes a point of saying something to me, and I’m the only brown or Black person in the neighborhood, I keep my eye on them,” Rivera said.
Rivera said another security officer arrived, and the two told her that they had been informed that she refused to leave. She told officers she hadn’t even been asked to leave.
When Rivera said she would start recording the conversation, one officer told the other to call the police.
After asking the guards to at least look at her confirmation email, they told her it was the same email they had received.
However, as a third officer arrived, she was asked to leave.
“I was alone and faced with three security officers and a white woman in power,” she said. “I chose safety.”
‘The truth is I was scared’
Rivera’s experience highlights just one of the many reasons why communities of color are hesitant to get the vaccine.
Many communities still remember the horrors of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, one of the worst cases of medical racism in modern American history. Forced hysterectomies on women in ICE detention only added to the distrust of healthcare in America by minority groups.
When Rivera said she saw the security officers, she knew she wouldn’t get the vaccine that day.
“When that second security officer said. ‘Let’s call for backup, let’s call the police,’ I was afraid. I was afraid about what was going to happen,” she said. “There was no part of my behavior that required a security presence — let’s just be real clear about that. The thing that she didn’t like was that I wasn’t accepting her word as authority about my healthcare.”
When reached for comment, Sentara declined to comment on specific questions about what Rivera said about her interactions with the hospital.
Instead, in a statement to The Citizen, a spokesman said: “Last week, some in the community may have received an email that incorrectly invited them to sign up for a vaccination appointment at the hospital. This was a processing error between Sentara and VDH and we are working to fix it. We are deeply sorry to anyone who received a message in error and were turned away. We are working to prevent this from happening again in the future.
“We will continue to work around the clock to improve the process and vaccinate as many as we can, as quickly as we can. We are currently working to obtain additional vaccine supply and launch clinics across the region and will provide information as it becomes available.”
Rivera said she eventually heard back from Mary Morin, Sentara’s vice president of clinical effectiveness, on Monday. Morin said she believed the list the Virginia Health Department provided to Sentara RMH contained only names of healthcare workers and first responders.
Rivera’s video she recorded after her experience has been viewed more than 2,500 times, and her blog has been read more than 1,500 times.
The experience has stuck with Rivera.
“If I knew that there were people on the list who had erroneously been put on the list, I would be making a bigger effort to help them,” Rivera said. “Here’s how you can get back on the list, here’s how you can get an appointment…I would have a way to assure these folks that their health was important.”
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