The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is facing backlash after its COVID-19 vaccination site turned away several people who were eligible for the shot. The university has apologized, chalking it up to a misunderstanding of guidelines about who can receive the vaccine.
Still, Jesus Diaz says he has never felt as embarrassed and ashamed as he did on Saturday.
“Nunca, nunca en mi vida, después de casi veinte años que tengo yo aquí en el valle. Nunca me había pasado algo similar. Nunca” he said in Spanish. “Never, never in my life, after having been here in the Valley for almost 20 years. Nothing like this had ever happened to me. Never.”
Diaz, who is undocumented, waited in line for hours to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Moments from getting inoculated, a clinic worker asked him to verify his information and provide a Social Security number. Diaz says that’s when it all went wrong.
“Este texto de palabras textuales de la muchacha me dice esta vacuna es únicamente para ciudadanos americanos y personas con números social,” he said. “This text here, straight from the lady, tells me that this vaccine is only for U.S. citizens and people with Social Security numbers.”
He says the clinic worker told him he couldn’t get the vaccine. When he asked why, Diaz says he was told shots were only for people with Social Security numbers and U.S. citizens.
But citizenship is not a factor in vaccine eligibility, and providing a Social Security number isn’t required.
The Rio Grande Valley is a medically underserved region with many families of mixed immigration statuses, as well as many multigenerational households. The area has been heavily impacted by COVID-19, and was a hot spot in July.
The Department of Homeland Security released a statement on Feb. 1 encouraging anyone, regardless of immigration status, to seek out the vaccine, calling it “a moral and public health imperative.” And in Texas, the Department of State Health Services guidelines say proof of residency is not required to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
So, why was Diaz asked for this information? Patrick Gonzalez, a spokesperson for UT-Rio Grande Valley says he can’t verify exactly what was said between Diaz and clinic staff because he wasn’t there during Diaz’s appointment. But he says that since UT-Health Rio Grande Valley (the health care institution affiliated with the university) is a medical provider, registrants are asked for their Social Security number as a matter of course, though it’s not required.
“Anybody who gets vaccinated at UT-Health RGV has to be inputted as a patient of ours. That way we can track you,” he said. “We can send you messages for your second dose. So part of that intake is to ask for your Social, but it’s not mandatory.”
After the clinic found out about the incident with Diaz, Dr. Michael Dobbs, chief medical officer for UT-Health RGV, says he inquired about the correct vaccine guidelines with the Texas Department of State Health Services.
“Based on our understanding of previous available guidance,” he said, “the vaccines were intended for people who reside in the region, in particularly for those who are Texans.”
Dobbs says the circumstances that led to Diaz being turned away were an oversight.
“I’d like to own up that we made a mistake and didn’t follow protocol,” he said.
But he does say the guidelines can be confusing.
“Sometimes the messages can be in conflict,” he said. “And I don’t mean with a particular organization like DSHS [Department of State Health Services]; I mean, with perhaps other organizations, like governmental organizations.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s own messaging may be partly to blame. In a press conference on Jan. 28 in San Antonio, Abbott said “U.S. vaccines are for U.S. residents; Texas vaccines are for Texas residents.” He followed that by saying, “You must be a Texas resident to get a vaccine in Texas.”
But, again, proving residency or U.S. citizenship isn’t a requirement. And Diaz’s case wasn’t an isolated incident. Dobbs says the university vaccine clinic has since identified 14 people who were wrongly turned away.
Norma from Edinburg says her mother narrowly missed being a part of that group. She asked we only use her first name for fear of repercussions.
On Feb. 8 she accompanied her mother to her vaccine appointment at UT-Health RGV. Norma says at first, a clinic manager denied her mom the vaccine, just like Diaz.
“I asked her, So you’re not going to vaccinate undocumented immigrants? And then she said that the governor has said something about only giving it to U.S. citizens,” Norma said.
Her mom only got the shot after Norma pushed back on this reasoning. She says if she hadn’t been there to advocate for her, things might have turned out differently.
The confusion is fueling the organization La Unión del Pueblo Entero, or LUPE, to call for change.
“This could do a lot of damage in a community that already has a mistrust in these institutions,” says LUPE Director Juanita Valdez-Cox.
The nonprofit wants UT-Health RGV to create a marketing campaign in Spanish with a clear message “that vaccines are for everyone, regardless of immigration status,” Valdez-Cox said.
On Wednesday, UT-Health RGV sent a letter to LUPE saying it’s committed to reaching out to the Hispanic community about immigration status and vaccines. It also released a bilingual public notice stating that no eligible person will be denied a COVID-19 vaccine based on residency or immigration status.
Dobbs says inoculating as many eligible people as possible will help the community get closer to herd immunity.
After all, he says “virus knows no nationality.”