Vaccine Availability: How Are Retail Workers Holding Up?

Despite garnering widespread praise early in the pandemic, many frontline workers have largely felt left behind in the statewide effort to vaccine vulnerable populations.

Starting February 24, San Francisco will have moved to Phase 1B, Tier 1 of the state’s population prioritization plan and begun vaccinating people who are eligible as supply allows.

All this to prioritize at-risk populations — yet, for workers in retail, it’s unclear when vaccines will become accessible. 

The California Department of Public Health released a plan in January detailing which workers would be considered eligible. As released on February 13 phase 1A and 1B prioritize healthcare workers, long-term care residents, individuals 65 and older, workers in education and childcare, emergency services and food and agriculture.

The California website has not included retail workers under phase 1B. All the while, COVID-19 vaccine availability seems to be scarce as city officials report frustration with accessibility and knowing when exactly shipments for the vaccine will arrive. 

After many retail workers were furloughed in March of 2020, some were faced with the challenge of going back to work despite the ongoing pandemic.

“I went back…when they called us back [in June] simply because I had to make the hours for my medical [insurance],” said a 73-year-old employee at Nordstrom in SoMa who chose to remain anonymous. 

Many full-time employees, like the Nordstrom employee, felt that they had no other choice but to go back after they found out through a corporate newsletter that their medical insurance would only be extended until June 2020. 

Being forced to face the pandemic head-on since stores began reopening in June now leaves many frontline workers in the community frustrated, feeling uneasy that they will not get a vaccine in time. 

The Nordstrom worker added, “[The government] didn’t really say whether retail workers were ranked the same [as grocery workers]….We were exposed to the general public, even though Nordstrom had strict guidelines. It was still in question. Like, when can we get the vaccine?”

Feeling lost and forced to navigate complicated information by themselves, the Nordstrom worker was ready to give up multiple times until eventually finding a program through Safeway’s partnership with the San Francisco State University campus and was finally able to get vaccinated as their age met the requirements. 

When asked to clarify if there would be a concrete timeline in which frontline workers that did not work in healthcare would receive the vaccine, Darrel Ng of the California Department of Public Health said that frontline workers such as grocery store workers, restaurant workers, law enforcement, farmworkers and those who work in food processing plants or the educational sector are already included in the statewide guidance. 

“Counties have the freedom to modify this guidance as they see fit to reflect local priorities,” Ng said. “Inquiries about who is eligible in your county should be directed to your local public health department.”

Meanwhile, the San Francisco vaccination timeline refers to the state website — where frontline workers do not appear listed on the vaccination timeline.

As stated by the San Francisco COVID Command Center, “Many of the decisions regarding vaccination are being driven by the state and federal government, including the [number] of vaccine a county or healthcare provider receives, as well as when and who to vaccinate.”

At this moment, prioritization seems to be the elderly population, as the San Francisco COVID Command Center recognizes, “ In San Francisco, people 65 years of age or older represent only 15 percent of COVID cases, but 83 percent of our COVID deaths.”

In the business-oriented Financial District and South of Market Area, the impacts are hard-felt.

Austin Yuen, a 22-year-old Nordstrom employee focused on being worried about his family. He knows that what other employees do on their own time could potentially affect those he cares about. “But at the same time, I’m more concerned about the people around me like my grandparents, or like my sisters, or my brother and my little cousins, because they’re like, really little. So I feel like they are [a] priority.”

Austin is patiently waiting for the vaccine as he sees those in his home that are more at-risk receive theirs first. 

SF District 6 Supervisor, Matt Haney said in a Twitter post on February 23, “No one knows what will happen right now post 1B, and every county moving differently. It makes no sense. There’s still mass confusion and inequities.” 
Aaron Peskin, SF District 3 Supervisor declined to make a statement in regards to giving the public a timeline of when all frontline workers would be eligible to receive the vaccine.

By Karla O

Karla Orellana is a Creative Writing major and Journalism minor at San Francisco State University

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