Latina Pastor, Denied Vaccine At First, Speaks Out On Race And COVID-19

Feb 16, 2021

The text that Christina Rivera received from Sentara RMH, before she was turned away.
Credit Christina Rivera

An experience for one woman at Sentara RMH in Harrisonburg highlights concerns about racial bias in healthcare, especially regarding the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. WMRA’s Bridget Manley reports.

Christina Rivera is part of the senior lead ministry team at the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and provides pastoral care to many people in the Valley, including those who are sick with COVID-19 as well as their families.

Credit Christina Rivera

Wanting to get vaccinated when it was her turn, she filled out the online registration form provided by the Virginia Department of Health, giving her occupation, age and health status, and sent in the form.

She was elated when she was sent an email confirming she had been chosen to receive the vaccine, and was asked to make an appointment at Sentara RMH.

CHRISTINA RIVERA: I was really, really excited.

What happened next highlights discrimination in America’s healthcare system, and provides more context to vaccine hesitancy among Black, Latino and Indigenous populations.


Learn more about this story from Bridget's original reporting with WMRA's news partner The Citizen.

Rivera, who is Latina, was questioned for credentials when she arrived for her vaccination appointment, then told that she would not be receiving her vaccine. She was then told that even though her name was on the list provided by the VDH, she was being “screened out” by the employee at the desk. When Rivera asked how she could clear up the error, or prove that she had the proper emails and confirmations, she was dismissed.

Then, as she sat waiting for a callback from Sentara’s corporate office for further guidance, security arrived.

RIVERA: And he said, ‘well, we are understanding that you are refusing to leave.’ And I was like, ‘excuse me?’ And I could tell that they were both really uncomfortable. And I said, ‘well now I have to start recording the interaction.’ As soon as I said that, the second security person was like, ‘don’t say anything else, call for backup and call the police, she’s recording us right now. Don’t say anything else.’

The Virginia Department of Health reports that through February 12th, around one million vaccines have been given in the Commonwealth. Of that, about 60% have been given to Whites, while only around 10% have been given to Blacks and less than 5% have been given to Latinos.

Those numbers are in stark contrast to deaths in the United States. The COVID Tracking Project found that Latinos die from COVID-19 at a rate 1.2 times higher than Whites. The CDC says it’s even higher, at about 2.3 times the death rate for Whites. And the nationwide death rate from the disease is even higher for Black people.

And Rivera says that as soon as she saw the security officers, she knew instinctually she could not fight for her right to adequate healthcare in that moment.

RIVERA: The reason I did that was because I was afraid. Once that second security officer said ‘lets call for backup, let’s call the police,’ I was afraid. I was afraid about what was going to happen. And, you know, that’s why, at that point, I just totally turned down. Like, this is not going to happen, I’m out of here.

Rivera ended up penning a blog post and recording a Facebook video recalling her experience.  The video has been viewed over 3,500 times.

Then last week, President of Sentara RMH Medical Center Doug Moyer along with Iris Lundy, Director of Health Equity for Sentara called Rivera to apologize for what happened. Rivera said that both fully listened to her experience, and after, Moyer offered a full apology for the hospital’s actions.

Rivera received her vaccine at the Rockingham County Fairgrounds a week later.
Credit Christina Rivera

RIVERA: It felt really good, because he didn't use any of the ‘if’ language that I've come to expect of corporations that tried to protect themselves. Like, ‘we’re sorry if you felt this way’ or, you know, ‘if that had to happen.’ You know, there wasn't any hedging. It was just, you know, flat out ‘this was wrong.’

When asked for comment, Sentara confirmed the call between Moyer, Lundy and Rivera, and said in a statement that they were ‘happy to be able to hear more from Ms. Rivera about her experience and are sorry for the way she felt she was treated at Sentara RMH.  One of our commitments is to always treat you with dignity, respect, and compassion.’

With Rivera’s permission, the hospital will be using her experience in their diversity and inclusion training at the hospital. Rivera says she’s very encouraged that the hospital wants to use her experience to train employees ‘cross-cultural competency’ to ensure better healthcare for Black and Brown people.

RIVERA: I mean, that’s what we talk about when we talk about anti-racism and anti-oppression. The system is set up and when it's working the way it works - to exclude black and brown people - is the system working the way it was designed to work. So, people falling back on, ‘well, I'm just doing it the way they told me to do it,’ or ‘I'm just doing it the way it should be done,’ or ‘I'm just doing it according to procedures,’ what they're really saying is, ‘I'm contributing to a policy or procedure that systematically excludes the health of Black and brown people.’ 

Rivera was also able to receive her first dose of the vaccine at the Rockingham County fairgrounds last Saturday afternoon, a promise Sentara made on the phone call to make things right.