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‘If I don’t do it, who’s going to help them?’: Maryland group works to ensure equity in COVID vaccine access

In the minutes before the clock struck midnight and Thursday melted into Friday, María Peterson had her desk ready for battle. Two laptops with color-coded spreadsheets were open, neon sticky notes surrounded the screens and a desk lamp dimly lit the room that Peterson rarely used until the coronavirus pandemic hit and it became her ground zero.

Twenty minutes passed and Peterson, a Columbia resident, was calling the night a flop. “Right now I’m sitting here waiting and wondering how long do I wait?”

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She quickly messaged in a group text; the other two women who were awake were equally frustrated and facing the same problem. Together they had 263 names on their lists, and only eight had been crossed off.

Peterson is one of eight members of the Vaccine Hunters, a group of Montgomery County high school teachers who are working day and night to get Marylanders appointments for the COVID-19 vaccine.

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After 10 weeks of hunting for vaccine appointments, Peterson, 49, knows the turn of the day means a new batch of appointments are open at CVS sites across the state.

That night was not the first time the system has glitched, but as she stared at the name of a 39-year-old essential worker, she felt frustrated and exhausted. Peterson just wanted to confirm one more appointment. However, she knows after that one, there’s another and another. The list never seems to end, she said.

“Who are we to decide who does and doesn’t get a vaccine? I have so many people here who want to get the vaccine,” Peterson said, pointing to her list in exasperation. “I taught today and I have to teach tomorrow; I haven’t even touched my grades. I’m just bummed because I have been up all this time waiting for this.

“Tonight was a bust,” she said.

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The eight Vaccine Hunters could write a handbook on how to get a COVID-19 vaccine appointment, navigating, reporting and sometimes solving problems along the way. Instead, they’ve put their expertise to use spending hours each day securing appointments — more than 5,000 since they first started.

When they began their efforts Jan. 24, they focused on helping older adults grab the coveted appointments, alleviating transportation needs as well as technological barriers. Now, as vaccine access has expanded, the Vaccine Hunters have shifted gears, working to get appointments for Black and Latino residents in Maryland.

As of Tuesday, 19% of the people who have been fully vaccinated in Maryland so far are Black and 3.8% are Hispanic/Latino, according to the Maryland Department of Health. Those numbers compare with white people, who make up 66% of those fully vaccinated in the state. White people make up 58.5% of the state’s population, Black people 31% and Latinos 11%.

The Vaccine Hunters group, from left, standing: Dina Ciccone, Kathleen Bartels, Courtney Mason, Tania Perez-Fuentes and Becky Taylor; sitting: Maisie Lynch, Tanya Aguilar and María Peterson.
The Vaccine Hunters group, from left, standing: Dina Ciccone, Kathleen Bartels, Courtney Mason, Tania Perez-Fuentes and Becky Taylor; sitting: Maisie Lynch, Tanya Aguilar and María Peterson. (Courtesy photo/Courtesy photo)

Individuals fill out a Google form or call a group member and provide the necessary information to secure an appointment. To be added to the Vaccine Hunters’ list, people are asked to self-identify their race or ethnicity; that way, Peterson said, the group can keep track of exactly who they are helping. Ninety-five percent of the individuals on the current list self-identify as Latino, she said.

These efforts are helped by the fact that four of the eight Vaccine Hunters — Peterson, Maisie Lynch, Kathleen Bartels, Courtney Mason, Dina Ciccone, Tanya Aguilar, Becky Taylor and Tania Perez-Fuentes — are bilingual Spanish speakers. Perez-Fuentes said she’s able to talk individuals through the appointment process and alleviate concerns about being uninsured or missing work to get the vaccine.

There’s a misunderstanding of the cause of vaccine hesitation for Latino residents, said Perez-Fuentes, a Beltsville resident. For most within the Latino community, it’s not mistrust in the vaccine itself, she said, but concern about how getting the vaccine could affect the rest of their lives.

“The hesitation [of the vaccine itself] is there, but they’re [mostly] worried about the side effects of the vaccine. ‘Am I going to miss a day of work because my body hurts or because I have a fever?’ ” Perez-Fuentes said. “It’s [also] the fact that they don’t know where to turn for the vaccine.”

Perez-Fuentes, 41, said difficulties arise when individuals don’t have the necessary technology to access vaccine appointments or when Spanish translations of English directions are unclear, sometimes because they were done by a computer and not a Spanish speaker.

The Vaccine Hunters said many Latinos who are essential workers are quick to give up on their vaccine efforts; the time spent on technological, linguistic and discrimination barriers is not worth immunization to many. That’s why, Perez-Fuentes said, the group works so diligently to get appointments.

“It is overwhelming sometimes, but if I don’t do it, who’s going to help them?” she asked. “Regardless if I sleep three hours a night, this is worth it because these people really need the vaccine.”

There are also concerns many individuals have over their immigration status and what they could be risking by visiting a vaccine site.

“They don’t want to go get vaccinated because they’re worried that [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] will be there or will be called,” Perez-Fuentes said.

At some sites, the group members said they have had to respond to incidents of profiling, discrimination and people being asked for documentation that is not necessary to receive a vaccine. Peterson said a bill with someone’s name on it, a driver’s license or a passport from any country are all examples of acceptable forms of identification for an appointment.

“People don’t know, they don’t know what they can be asked to show,” Peterson said.

The group has collected anecdotes of these experiences to help in its advocacy efforts: “Black woman, teacher, was asked to present school ID, paystub and even teacher’s license while others were not questioned in front of said woman.” Another reads: “Latina was denied a vaccine because she did not have a U.S.-issued ID or Social Security card. Woman was vaccinated after Vaccine Hunter called and spoke with a pharmacist to advocate on behalf of the woman.”

As part of the group’s advocacy, Perez-Fuentes said, they’ve pushed at the state and federal levels to have signage at the vaccine sites that say insurance or a specific form of documentation is not necessary to receive a vaccine.

Those incidents led the group to reach out to CVS directly. They met with the diversity director and individuals in government affairs at CVS, presenting specific examples of experiences where individuals were discriminated against.

Peterson said CVS listened and set up a clinic specifically for Black and Latino residents at Baltimore City Community College. The clinic, which started last Friday, will run through Saturday.

María Peterson, a Columbia resident who teaches in Montgomery County, is part of a group of women who started a Vaccine Hunters group to help older adults with technological problems find and make appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations. They have now moved to helping Black and Latino communities.
María Peterson, a Columbia resident who teaches in Montgomery County, is part of a group of women who started a Vaccine Hunters group to help older adults with technological problems find and make appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations. They have now moved to helping Black and Latino communities. (Jeffrey F. Bill)

The group has lobbied local and state officials, companies like CVS and other groups working to ensure equity in vaccine access. They take firsthand accounts of discrepancies in access and push officials to do better.

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That’s what they did last week when they met with Maryland National Guard Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead, who is leading the Maryland Vaccine Equity Task Force.

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“Those are the numbers that are showing the most cases of COVID. They have been on the front lines of COVID every day,” Peterson said of the Black and Latino communities. “It will help [stop] the spread of the virus if we get those demographics vaccinated specifically.”

There is also the pressure some workers get from their employers, mandating they get vaccines.

“A lot of these people work at restaurants and they’ve been told by their bosses that if they don’t get vaccines they’re going to get fired,” Peterson said.

That was one of the concerns Wendy Hernández had. Hernández, a Beltsville resident and co-owner of Nova Master Cleaning, has had customers ask her to get the vaccine if she was going to continue to clean their homes.

Peterson set Hernández up with her appointment at a CVS in Annapolis. The employee who vaccinated her walked Hernández through the process in Spanish.

“It made me feel better, the fact that the lady was Hispanic,” Hernández said. “I was a little nervous, but I was positive because in the end I knew [getting vaccinated] was for my own good.”

Since then, Hernández, 30, has become a proxy Vaccine Hunter, helping up to 30 people a day connect to Peterson and the other group members.

Hernández said most people who are reaching out to her are illiterate in Spanish, undocumented or elderly. Through her personal experience, she’s able to assuage their concerns and pass their information along to the Vaccine Hunters to schedule an appointment.

“I’m very proud of doing this because in Guatemala I was a teacher. As a teacher, I was able to help people in need,” Hernández said. “Now I’m able to do that here and help the people who need it.”

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