Vassar employees face difficulty securing vaccine

As obstacles to efficient vaccine distribution have created statewide chaos, Vassar has found itself unable to advocate for its employees, leaving many of them on their own in the scramble to get vaccinated.

Two months since the first COVID-19 vaccines were rolled out in the US, about 10 million New Yorkers—approximately half of the state’s population—have become eligible to receive the vaccine. Yet, the high hurdles of distribution reveal a more complicated story. Statewide, under 1.1 million second doses have been administered, meaning that only about six percent of residents are fully vaccinated. Things didn’t seem to be looking up this past weekend, when New York City reported that they had fewer than 1,000 first doses on hand amidst distribution delays related to the winter storm. 

In an email sent before the start of the semester, President Bradley said that Vassar had been “actively advocating to gain access” to the state’s vaccine supply, prompting questions as to whether the school would have a role in the vaccination of the campus community. But more recently, Vice President of Communications Amanita Duga-Carroll clarified via email that, as of right now, there is no state provision allowing the College to obtain vaccines for or fast-track its employees.

Currently, student-facing employees are eligible for vaccinations, and some have already been able to receive doses. Yet with Vassar powerless to intervene in the state-controlled process and a supply shortage that Duga-Carroll acknowledged had created scheduling challenges, employees have generally been left to fend for themselves—indicating that their only substantial help was receiving general informational resources from the college. 

It was on Jan. 11 that New York State health officials first announced that in-person college instructors were eligible to receive vaccines. At this point, Professor Lisa Lowrance of the Mathematics Department was only able to get an appointment for March 9, almost two whole months later. Lowrance added that both she and her husband, also a professor at Vassar, had been “obsessively” refreshing their internet browsers in the minutes before scheduling opened, but only her husband was able to book an appointment in Dutchess County. “There’s very few appointments in the county,” she explained, “they were gone in twenty seconds.” 

Lowrance knows of others having to drive to Binghamton, two-and-a-half hours away, or even Potsdam, not far from the Canadian border, to get their vaccines. “I just don’t see everyone being able to get a vaccine this semester,” she acknowledged.

Despite these difficulties, Lowrance understands Vassar’s inability to step in during the process, noting that “Everybody’s a little bit worried about getting in trouble for doing anything that isn’t quite right.” With so many high-risk groups scrambling for vaccines, the exercising of institutional authority could easily be seen as having negative ethical consequences.

Professor Chris Grabowski of the Drama Department, despite having already received both doses of the Moderna vaccine, had a similarly difficult experience with the scheduling process. Finding appointments around Poughkeepsie was fruitless, he explained, and with many open slots disappearing in the time it took to fill out his information, he was online for a number of hours trying to book an appointment. Eventually, he was able to get his hands on a slot for the following week—but had to go all the way to Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn. 

Grabowski still had a more hopeful perspective on the ability of Vassar’s employees to get vaccinated. “We in the Drama Department have been pretty proactive about getting the vaccine,” he said, explaining that some of his colleagues have already gotten the second dose, or are getting it soon. 

As for whether the eventual vaccination of professors will change teaching plans for the semester, it’s a mixed bag.

Lowrance pointed out that at least one of her colleagues in the Math Department plans to switch to in-person teaching after being vaccinated, but added that the path back to this kind of instruction is a long one. First, without many available classrooms capable of allowing all students to socially distance—especially for a department like math, where classes tend to be larger—simply finding a physical space is a significant roadblock. In Lowrance’s own class, her weekly workshopping time involves a level of interaction between students that is not possible while maintaining social distance. Solving this sort of issue would require students to be vaccinated, meaning that Lowrance’s own vaccination wouldn’t solve the problem.

Grabowski seemed to echo this sentiment, indicating that his own vaccination hasn’t done much to influence his planning. This semester, he’s teaching in-person and double-masking, and says that the biggest change he plans to make two weeks after his second dose is to simply stand further away from his students while switching to a single mask. Grabowski emphasized that “I don’t want to be cavalier about it,” and that he will continue to be tested. 

While the state works to continue what has so far been a slow rollout, Grabowski hopes to see the college be more inclusive towards faculty and staff in regards to testing. 

As Duga-Carroll explained, employees with the highest levels of student contact, such as dining and custodial workers, are given access to voluntary on-campus testing. Some, like Lowrance, in her capacity as a house fellow, are required to be tested every two weeks. But for others, like Grabowski, testing is a more difficult endeavor. 

“We’re encouraged to do it, we’re not required to do it, and it’s actually hard to schedule. There aren’t a lot of appointments available,” Grabowski said. He recognizes that the College is struggling and that testing carries a financial burden, but at the end of the day, he explains that the lack of testing pokes a hole in the campus bubble.

While the Vassar community looks forward to an eventual return to normalcy, the administration is waiting to hear back on the status of their application to become a vaccination site, which would serve any New Yorker in eligible categories, not just Vassar employees. In the meantime, Duga-Carroll reminds us: “We will continue to be guided by science, and public health guidelines. We are in regular conversation with local and federal public health officials, and re-evaluate protocols based on those conversations continually.”

Representatives from Dining Services and Facilities Operations were contacted but did not provide comments.

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