COVID-19 vaccine eligibility causes stress for Eau Claire residents

Some working Eau Claire residents are struggling to become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine

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A nurse holds the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. ©2021, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

Camryn Billen is a server at a popular restaurant chain. Alyssa Benning is a cashier at one of the largest retailers in the country. Jimmy Whitcomb is out of work because he has a suppressed immune system.

What all three people have in common is that they are currently not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine through their customer service jobs or have encountered difficulties in applying for it.

“You really matter until people decide that you don’t, and it’s honestly really frustrating,” Billen said.

Despite working near hundreds of people each day, Benning and Billen are still not eligible for the vaccine through their customer service jobs. Whitcomb has only recently been able to make an appointment to get the first dose of the vaccine, even though he is part of a vulnerable population.

Being vulnerable in a pandemic

“If I get COVID, I’m at double the risk of developing a severe case,” Whitcomb said.

According to the CDC, those who have underlying medical conditions that increase the risk of serious, life-threatening complication from COVID-19 should be among those offered the vaccine first. People with “severe immune deficiencies” falls under the list of those medical conditions.

For Whitcomb, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered his life drastically. From online classes to making the hard decision to no longer work as a lifeguard, Whitcomb has faced many obstacles in navigating life this past year.

Because of his inability to work, he has relied heavily on his father for financial assistance. His mother has also been unable to work, meaning that the family is relying on a single income.

“Feeling that dependency on my parents at a time where I’m supposed to be finding my own independence is difficult,” Whitcomb said.

Something even more challenging for Whitcomb has been trying to apply for the COVID-19 vaccine. Before becoming eligible, he had sent several emails and phone calls to inquire about his eligibility through his internship at a theater department, thinking it would be under the educator category. He received no reply, even though someone else in the same position was able to receive the vaccine.

Similar to Whitcomb, Billen and Benning have also encountered some difficulty in applying for the COVID-19 vaccine.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, some public facing essential workers are eligible for the vaccine, but that does not include retail workers. Only recently were restaurant workers made eligible, as well as individuals with certain medical conditions.

COVID-19 affects food-service and retail industries 

Camryn Billen
©2021, submitted photo

Camryn Billen, who is a server, was able to apply for the vaccine not through her restaurant job but through her office job at a college. Billen said that she was hopeful when the vaccine rolled out and that she would get the vaccine through her server job.

“That was so frustrating for me,” she said. “I had just picked up this job, and a week a later I was eligible to get the vaccine at that job, instead of the job I had worked three-and-a-half years at.”

According to Billen, her restaurant job has had multiple COVID-related health scares, which can put out a whole shift of people. Billen said she has had to pick up many hours or has had her hours cut completely without notice due to the effects of the pandemic.

“Workers aren’t supposed to be treated like they’re disposable, but that’s really the attitude people have around restaurant and retail workers,” Billen said.

Billen has also faced stress with the food service industry in general. With her two roommates also working in the industry, Billen said her household is at high risk for contracting COVID-19.

Like Whitcomb, Billen has also faced financial worry through this pandemic. According to Billen, if one roommate in her household gets sick, all of them could potentially be out of a job, meaning that they would not be able to pay rent.

“The service industry, there’s a lot of aspects about it that are already really draining,” Billen said, “tipped positions earn a really low hourly wage, and there’s really long hours on your feet.”

Alyssa Benning, a cashier, said she has felt similar emotions.

Benning said her place of work does not disclose who has had a positive COVID-19 result, whether if it is an employee or a patron.

“If you’re not going to tell me who it was or how long I was exposed to them, then it kind of makes me feel like, how valuable am I and what precautions have you really taken?” Benning said.

As well as being a retail worker, Benning is a campus tour guide at UW-Eau Claire. She worries that she might risk the health and safety of the prospective students she meets, along with her roommates, because of the hundreds of people she encounters at her retail job.

“It’s hard because I know that there’s so many people out there that aren’t wearing masks, or they’re not being safe,” Benning said, “it impacts not only my health and safety but those that I’m around outside of my retail job.”

Eligibility and relief 

Benning, Whitcomb and Billen have all been able to apply for the vaccine or have already received their first dose. Despite not being eligible through their retail or food industry jobs, or having to wait longer than expected, they have all expressed relief toward finally being eligible.

In an email sent by the UW-Eau Claire chancellor’s office on March 18, governor Tony Evers announced that Zorn Arena would become the site for a federal emergency management agency community vaccine clinic, opening April 8.

At least 3,500 and up to 7,000 weekly vaccine doses will be allocated to the site. It will be the second mass vaccination clinic site in the state and will have the capacity to vaccinate 1,200 people per day.

Benning, Whitcomb and Billen are encouraging others to also get the vaccine as soon as they are eligible.

Benning said she looks forward to visiting her family knowing that she is a lot safer. Billen can’t wait for the stress of the pandemic to be over. Whitcomb is excited to go out and get work experience for his theater arts major.

“At this point, every vaccine counts,” Whitcomb said. “Once you’re eligible, get vaccinated because the sooner you get vaccinated, we can all work towards getting back to a normal life.”