This article has been updated from the version published Issue 6 of the Wire’s print publication.
On Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021, an email claiming there were “no restrictions on eligibility today at the vaccine clinic” circulated in reference to the mass COVID-19 vaccination event being held at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds. Well-intentioned Whitman students then rushed to the mass vaccination site, and while some students were successful and received their vaccines, others were turned away. It was later confirmed that the information in the email was incorrect and the vaccination program was still intending to adhere to state eligibility guidelines, but the damage had already been done.
Frankly, the fact that some perfectly healthy Whitman students got the COVID-19 vaccination before at-risk individuals makes my blood boil. I understand why many ineligible students went to get their vaccines on Saturday. You were told it was okay, and right now, people are approaching vaccines in the same way they approached toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic. We have a scarcity mindset about these things, even though we know that everyone will eventually be able to get their vaccine.
With that said, alarm bells should have gone off in our minds when we were told — through unofficial forums — that people with no eligibility were able to get their vaccines so early in the process. If you got your shot and were technically ineligible for the vaccine, it is very possible that you’ve cut the line in front of someone who needs the vaccine more immediately. There are plenty of (and often extra) vaccines available on vaccination days, but knowledge of these extra doses is spread through word of mouth. Privileged, connected individuals are more likely to receive extra vaccines, but these vaccines could be more impactful for working-class, disabled and marginalized folks.
Ultimately, my issues with giving vaccines right now to those who are not vulnerable to COVID-19 come down to equity and access. Vulnerable populations, especially those with disabilities or compromised health, have been systematically shut out of social and economic processes throughout this pandemic, and deserve relief as soon as possible. Additionally, essential workers, the elderly and disabled folk are less likely to have access to transportation and time off from work. It is already hard enough for us to access life-saving healthcare; some students were able to buck the system, and as a disabled person, I find this unbelievable and unfair.
Many members of the Whitman community have volunteered at the Fairgrounds as a legal workaround to the eligibility requirements. As many people need to get vaccinated as possible, and the volunteer-vaccination model gets at this goal. However, it is important to remember that anyone who has the privilege to volunteer at the Fairgrounds in the first place probably doesn’t need the vaccine in the same way that vulnerable populations do. So, volunteers should work with this in mind.
If you would like to increase vaccination rates in Walla Walla and aren’t at high risk for COVID-19, consider working to educate at-risk populations about their options and work to aid vaccine communication throughout the Walla Walla valley. Talk to those in your life who might be eligible for the vaccine and offer your resources to them. Drive a friend to get their vaccine, help someone register for their vaccination appointment.
If you are already vaccinated and able to do so, continue to volunteer at vaccination sites; this will ensure that these programs get the support they need while freeing up extra vaccines for those in the community that have less access to healthcare communication.
Of course, if there are extra vaccines available that would expire without use, this drastically changes the ethics of getting your vaccine. Ideally, that vaccine would go to someone vulnerable or in need of protection, but will ultimately help the community of the recipient regardless of their eligibility.
All of us (should) want the vaccine, and all of us want to return to some semblance of normalcy. This will happen in due time, but this desire cannot continue to come at the expense of disabled, poor and disenfranchised lives. Prompted by misinformation or not, every Whitman student is responsible for acting as ethically as possible, especially when lives are at stake. This means wearing your mask, not going to parties and yes, waiting to get your COVID-19 vaccine. We can finally see a way out of this pandemic, but for all of us to get there alive and well, you have to wait your turn.