DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt assured District residents and workers last month they wouldn’t need to show proof of employment or proof of a qualifying medical condition to get a vaccine once they become eligible. “We will not require attestations from people regarding employment or health conditions,” she vowed at a Feb. 11 press conference. “Our goal is not to create artificial barriers for individuals to access vaccines through our portal or health care providers.”
But when people logged into the city’s new vaccine pre-registration portal that launched Wednesday morning, they may have encountered a message that conflicts with Nesbitt’s promise: “If you selected any of the above work settings, you must bring verification to your appointment (work ID badge, letter from your employer, copy of provider license, pay stub or other means of verification),” it reads.
When a City Paper staffer, for example, selects “D.C. resident,” “works in person,” and “media and mass communications,” the site clearly states documentation is required. The same message appears for non-residents and when users select other work settings, regardless of whether they indicate they are required to report in person.
Those sectors include food service and construction, two sectors that employ a high number of undocumented immigrants. Even if these workers have the recommended verification documents, being asked to produce them could deter some individuals from getting the vaccine. Deciding whether to enter personal information into a government website is already a potential hurdle, as is showing a photo ID. Some D.C. residents who have been vaccinated report having to show ID, and others say they weren’t asked to do so.
When City Paper contacted the vaccine call center, a DC Health employee said people just need to bring their “confirmation ID,” which they’ll receive when they get notified to book an appointment. It contains a series of numbers and letters, along with a QR code. (Per the D.C. guide, people will receive appointment IDs after they successfully book.) “You really don’t need anything,” the call center employee said when City Paper asked what they recommend undocumented residents bring to appointments.
“People should bring their confirmation code and/or QR code with them (on their phone or printed) to the vaccination site,” a DC Health spokesperson confirms via email. “They should bring personal identification and insurance card, if available, to the vaccination site,” she continues. “Personal identification documentation includes something that has their name on it to verify their identity. The personal identification does not need to be a government-issued photo ID.”
A spokesperson for Mayor Muriel Bowser says D.C. vaccine sites will not turn D.C. residents or workers away if they do not have a work ID badge or any other documentation the registration portal describes. But at no point during the online pre-registration process does the city communicate that those who do not show documentation at vaccine appointments will not be denied a shot.
The intent is “for people to be mindful” when pre-registering. The spokesperson compared it to COVID-19 testing sites asking for insurance—no one is turned away for lacking insurance, but people are asked for it. The spokesperson insists D.C. has clearly communicated, in press conferences and elsewhere, that people will not be turned away if they don’t have documentation, and that their policy around documentation has not changed. And the D.C. guide, published earlier this month, also said people will be asked about worker verification during pre-registration.
Most District residents do not tune into the city’s press conferences. When they interact with the new vaccine pre-registration portal, much of the information will be new to them. It currently states that employment verification is necessary. As of noon on Wednesday, more than 48,500 individuals had already pre-registered for a vaccination appointment, according to a press release.
No elected officials appear to be voicing any other concerns about the pre-registration process. “I’m mostly hearing things are going very smoothly, with people being able to get through it quickly & receive confirmation,” Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen Tweeted this afternoon.
Groups that work with the undocumented community voiced concerns about the wording on the pre-registration portal or any suggestion that documentation is required, because there’s already plenty of confusion as it is. Arturo Griffiths of Trabajadores Unidos de Washington DC, a nonprofit representing immigrant and low-wage workers, many of them day laborers, says he’s spoken with individuals who do not know how to get vaccinated. They are more focused on getting work than vaccinated, so Griffiths worries any impediments will discourage them altogether.
“I don’t know how to do it. Where do I call? I can’t speak English” Griffiths says, reflecting the concerns of workers with whom he’s spoken. “They don’t have any documents. It’s very difficult for them. They worried about that.” (He hopes the D.C. government does better outreach to the undocumented community given the confusion.)
The verbiage took many by surprise, including Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington CEO Kathy Hollinger, who has been advising restaurant owners on the vaccination process. City Paper showed Hollinger the language from the pre-registration site.
“This is inconsistent with what we have heard since February,” she says. “We have been trying to diligently stay on top of the process to help our operators and our employees navigate it … Nesbitt reinforced many times with the Council and others that this will be based on the honor system. This is already a very intimidating process because it creates a lot of anxiety.”
Elizabeth Falcon, the executive director of DC Jobs with Justice, was also surprised with the wording when City Paper showed her screenshots. “DC government has made a commitment to make vaccines low barrier, and to my knowledge in previous rounds of vaccine eligibility, workers and residents were not required to bring this type of proof of eligibility,” she says in an email. “DC government should clarify what they mean by ‘verification’ so this portal does not deter residents from participating in the District’s vaccine process.”