At least two recent incidents in which undocumented women in Southern California were denied COVID-19 vaccinations prompted activists and others on Thursday to point out that such denials run counter to public health advice – and drew an apology from Rite-Aid, the pharmacy chain involved in the denials.
“It is unacceptable, absolutely abhorrent, that any for-profit entity, or any other entity, would deny vaccination to any human being simply because they do not have immigration status,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the L.A.-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights.
Rite Aid spokesman Chris Savarese on Thursday described the two cases as “isolated incidents and mistakes” among the approximate 1 million vaccines the pharmacy has given out. In both situations, Rite Aid offered the women new vaccination appointments and both have since received a shot.
“At Rite Aid, our priority is to administer COVID-19 vaccines we are allocated as quickly, safely, and efficiently as possible based on local eligibility criteria. In such an unprecedented rollout, there are going to be mistakes and there will be always areas for providers to improve – we’re seeking out those opportunities every day,” Savarese said in an e-mailed statement.
Rite Aid employees have now been advised that if customers seeking vaccines do not have identification, they are not to be turned away, Savarese wrote.
But prior to Rite Aid’s apologies, issued last week, employees in at least two pharmacies denied people access to the protection because they couldn’t provide a social security number.
Sebastian Araujo, a UCLA student, said he initially was thrilled a few weeks ago when he got a call from a Rite Aid pharmacy about extra COVID-19 vaccinations, relieved that his parents would get the critical protection.
But when they arrived at the Mission Hills pharmacy in the San Fernando Valley earlier this month, a pharmacist told his mother that she couldn’t get a shot because she’s an undocumented immigrant.
“First thing they asked is ‘Do you have health insurance’. Then they asked for a Social Security number,” said Araujo, a UCLA student. “Me and my parents looked at each other and my dad said ‘Isn’t that discrimination against undocumented people?’”
Then his mom was told by pharmacy personnel in Spanish, three times: “Undocumented people are not going to get a vaccine.”
A few days later, a similar scene played out in Laguna Niguel, where a woman was denied a vaccine at a Rite Aid after she couldn’t provide a Social Security number.
Neither woman felt comfortable going back to the original pharmacy that rejected them. Both said they felt humiliated when their immigration status was questioned in front of other customers. Both left the pharmacies crying.
Costa Mesa residents Kevin and Yesenia Rager, with their kids Even, 5, and Jaden, 10 months, helped their babysitter after she was denied a COVID-19 vaccination at a Rite Aid pharmacy in Laguna Niguel because she doesn’t have a social security number. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)
In the San Fernando Valley incident, after Araujo took to social media to publicize what happened to his mother, a Rite Aid representative called to apologize and schedule her another appointment for March 16.
“Then days later we learned it happened again,” Araujo said.
On March 18, the Laguna Niguel woman said she also was asked for health insurance information and a Social Security number as proof of identification at a Rite Aid on Crown Valley Parkway. She was told that vaccines were being prioritized for American citizens.
“I felt very embarrassed,” said the woman, who has lived in Orange County for 20 years and asked that her name not be used because of her immigration status. “]
While at the pharmacy, the woman called her employer, Yesenia Rager, who spoke with the pharmacist.
“What’s going on?” she asked him.
“Your employee doesn’t have a Social Security number and we’re giving priority to American citizens,” Yesenia Rager said she was told.
The woman has been a babysitter for the Rager family for five years, since the birth of their oldest child.
Kevin Rager said he got the same response from different people he spoke with at the pharmacy, so he reached out to the Rite Aid corporate office. Soon, he got an apology and an appointment for the woman, who was eligible for the vaccine as a caregiver.
“It made me wonder, how many other times did they get away with it?”
Vaccines are available to everyone who meets certain eligibility criteria. The newest criteria, announced Thursday, expands the pool of people who are eligible to everyone 50 and older as of April 1, and everyone 16 and older as of April 15. Vaccinations are free and no proof of insurance is required.
On Thursday, representatives from the St. John’s Well Child and Family Center in Los Angeles joined numerous labor, immigrant and civic organizations for a vaccination clinic and a press conference outside the office of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor to denounce the two incidents. They encouraged immigrants to register for a COVID-19 vaccine and reminded everyone that vaccinations are available to all, regardless of immigration status.
Community leaders who gathered for the press conference Thursday said they want to see the state take further steps to prioritize essential workers, many of them immigrants and minorities who have little choice but to work and have been among the hardest hit groups affected during the pandemic.
Rudy Espinoza, executive director of Inclusive Action for the City, which supports street vendors, said the undocumented immigrant population is among the most vulnerable. He advised them: “Don’t let anybody turn you away.”
Source: Orange County Register