Carmen Velasco, left, spent long hours finding her vaccine with help from Meredith Wardlaw Rodríguez, right. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Just a few weeks ago, Carmen Velasco gave up on registering for the state’s Vaccine Connector. Velasco, whose primary language is Spanish, felt some of the questions on the state connector were too personal or too complex for her to answer confidently. 

In the two weeks since, something remarkable happened: Velasco, 40, received her first dose of the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine. The moment she got vaccinated, she felt joy and relief.

“Finally, I got my shot,” Velasco said.

But it wasn’t easy. Things are changing rapidly as more of the vaccines become available. But up until now, the rollout across the country has been marked with confusion and chaos for many of those seeking one of the limited numbers of available doses. So-called “vaccine hunters” scramble online, hit the phones, and share information in online groups. 

For people who aren’t tech savvy or don’t speak English proficiently, these common hurdles often are compounded by even more hurdles. Signup forms may be only available in English. People may need to sign up for appointments online instead of over the phone.

Vijendra Agarwal, a Inver Grove Heights business owner who falls into the 65 and older category, said he signed up for vaccines in at least eight places and spent countless time on the phone before finally obtaining his first shot in late February. Agarwal said even with his education level, English proficiency, and eligibility, he had difficulty tracking down his dose.

“Every place I called, they told me to call this number or that number,” Agarwal said. “For a person that does not speak English well, or cannot assert himself or herself, they would definitely have trouble.” 

Velasco’s effort involved long phone calls with health providers and government agencies. She sought help from her friends to fill out proper registration forms. She frantically compiled documentation to prove she was eligible. When she finally got a vaccine appointment, a friend went with her to act as an advocate — just in case. Leading up to the moment a clerk finally stuck her with the needle, Velasco said she felt a lingering fear that she would be turned away. Would the clerk tell her she forgot to bring that last slip of paperwork to prove her eligibility? Would something she said get lost in translation?

“It’s stressful,” Velasco said. “It’s too much to be calling here and there. A lot of Latinos are afraid to get the vaccines. And having these problems with everything—call here, call there, get put on the list—ugh, no way!” 

It all started when Velasco learned she was eligible to receive the vaccine. Velasco and her husband, Jorge Soler, are far younger than the current age cutoff for the vaccine, but they are caregivers for their daughter, who is special needs, with multiple health conditions including Down Syndrome. Velasco became aware of her eligibility after the Down Syndrome Association of Minnesota alerted her to it. Velasco obtained an official letter from the association saying she was vaccine eligible, a process that took one full day.

Armed with the letter, she called St. Mary’s Health Clinics, which has been recently providing vaccine drives aimed at older Latinos. In the past few weeks, Velasco put the word out about these vaccine events to friends of hers who were 65 and older.

Over the phone, a staffer from St. Mary’s told Velasco that they had no planned upcoming vaccine drives, but that she should call the Consulate of Mexico in St. Paul, which has been holding vaccination drives in its office aimed broadly at local Latinos of all immigration statuses. When she phoned the consulate, a staffer there told her that they were only vaccinating people aged 65 and older, and instructed her instead to find a vaccine through the Minnesota Department of Health. 

In the meantime, Velasco’s friend, Meredith Wardlaw Rodríguez, helped her fill out and register on the state’s Vaccine Connecter. In doing so, Wardlaw Rodríguez found that the connector did not have a proper category for Velasco’s role as her daughter’s caregiver. In other words, Wardlaw Rodríguez could not mark the very thing that made Velasco eligible for a vaccine in the first place. 

Velasco cleared this up while on a Spanish language phone line with the state health department. Yes, a staffer told Velasco, she was indeed eligible and should book an appointment for a vaccine right now. But the health department couldn’t do this for her; she instead would have to call a drug store like Walgreens or a retail store like Walmart to find and make an appointment. 

Velasco called Walgreens, and soon found out that she could only register for a vaccine appointment online. That’s where Wardlaw Rodríguez came in to help, once again. 

Other than using her phone, Velasco is not much of an online person. The requirements to make an appointment with Walgreens requires steps like making an online profile, typing in a temporary password, resetting and creating a permanent password—not easy tasks to complete on a smartphone. 

Before doing this for Velasco on her computer, Wardlaw Rodríguez printed out the questionnaire from Walgreens and brought it over to Velasco’s home. Together, they went over the questions. Then, Wardlaw Rodríguez used the answers she wrote in the print form to fill out the same form online. 

Wardlaw Rodríguez repeated this process for Velasco’s husband, Soler, who was also vaccine eligible. This proved even more laborious. Soler did not have an existing email address before this, so they created one for him.

“It was pretty intense,” Wardlaw Rodríguez said. “It was really time consuming and challenging.” 

That wasn’t the end of it. 

Wardlaw Rodríguez now took charge of finding and registering Velasco and Soler for available appointments. When she first went online to Walgreens’ website, she ran into a problem typical for many vaccine hunters: all appointments that day in nearby locations were already booked. She hit the refresh page button, again and again. She didn’t find open appointments online until the next day, at a Walgreens in White Bear Lake, a roughly 15 minute drive from their North End neighborhood in St. Paul.

In all, Wardlaw Rodríguez said she spent three to four hours helping secure vaccine appointments for Velasco and Soler, if not longer. 

One final step remained: getting the shot itself. Velasco wanted to make sure nothing complicated happened at the appointment, so she brought her friend Martha Higuera to interpret for her in case she needed someone to translate for her. Armed with her ID and paperwork proving she and her husband are eligible, the three of them headed out for their appointment on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 9. 

“We were anticipating the pushback, knowing they might not recognize or appreciate an out-of-the-box circumstance,” Higuera said. “We showed up, and we were nervous.”

But from there, things went smoothly. Velasco and Soler received their shots around 4:00 pm. Soon they both registered for their second dose appointment. 

Velasco’s friends say the fact she had to rely on an informal support network—her friends—to secure a vaccine, shows the system isn’t set up to favor people who aren’t digitally savvy or completely proficient in English. 

Velasco agrees. She said she is especially upset to learn that all the work to finally register on the Vaccine Connector didn’t end up actually helping her get the vaccine. 

She’s trying to help others in similar situations get vaccinated. She’s told other Latino caregiver parents of children with Down Syndrome in a What’sApp message group that they are eligible. Many of them, she said, are hesitant to get vaccinated.

“I tell them that in my case, I am a little afraid of the vaccine, too,” she said. “But I am more afraid of the illness.” 

Besides, who would take care of her daughter if she got seriously ill? 

Currently, Velasco and Wardlow Rodríguez are repeating the grueling process of helping a friend find a vaccine. This time it’s for Velasco’s daughter’s personal care assistant. 

On Thursday, there was more hopeful news. President Joe Biden directed states to make all adults eligible for vaccines by May 1. And Velasco learned that the Down Syndrome Association of Minnesota is now working directly with the Latino parents she knows to register them for vaccine appointments. 

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...