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Glitches put foreign teachers behind Korean colleagues in vaccine queue

Health care workers at a clinic in Gwangju vaccinate members of the essential workforce on Friday. (Yonhap)
Health care workers at a clinic in Gwangju vaccinate members of the essential workforce on Friday. (Yonhap)



Some foreign teachers in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province say they were unable to book COVID-19 vaccine appointments at the same time as their South Korean colleagues, raising questions about discrimination.

Earlier this month, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency allotted Pfizer’s vaccines to Seoul and Gyeonggi Province and let the municipal offices decide which groups to prioritize depending on their own risk assessments. Seoul was handed enough Pfizer doses to cover 200,000 people, while Gyeonggi Province got enough for 140,000 people.

With the recent allotments, Seoul and Gyeonggi added teachers at private educational institutions -- known locally as “hagwon” --, delivery workers and other “essential workers” who weren’t previously included in the nationwide vaccination program overseen by the central agency.

The newly added priority groups in these areas are set to receive their first Pfizer vaccinations this month. Under the national schedule, which rolls out in descending order of age, people in their late 50s are scheduled for their first doses from the last week of July through early August.

But since the priority vaccinations in the city and the province opened up Tuesday, several foreign teachers told The Korea Herald that they were unable to obtain appointments immediately while their Korean colleagues were signed up and even vaccinated.

One English teacher at a hagwon in Goyang, a northern Gyeonggi Province city, said all of the foreign staff where she works had been “randomly left out of vaccine registration due to a computer error.” It wasn’t until Saturday that they were finally given appointments.

“It was very confusing. Some hagwon teachers were able to register for a vaccine, but many others were getting rejected,” she said. “I don’t understand why the system wasn’t prepared for foreigners, even though they promised us easy access to the vaccine.”

Another teacher in Seongnam, also in Gyeonggi Province, said foreign teachers were “apparently being rejected for not being Korean.”

The screenshot of the text message she received from the vaccination clinic in her area on Friday read, “This message is addressed to people who are eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations. Due to errors with the system, vaccinations cannot be given to foreigners at the moment. We kindly ask for your patience until next week.”

The next day, she said she received confirmation of an appointment for next Friday. “Regardless, it shouldn’t have happened to begin with,” she said.

A Gyeonggi official told The Korea Herald on Sunday that in most parts of the province, eligible people who weren’t given appointments initially received their dates over the weekend.

He admitted that “due to an administrative error some information of people who are eligible for vaccination could not be processed temporarily,” but denied that this affected foreigners only.

He said the province was “in the process of manually sorting out” the names and phone numbers that weren’t recognized by the system, and then matching them with the list of workers at hagwons and other workplaces provided by the provincial offices in charge of education and employment. 

Asked why some foreigners were having difficulty, he explained that names were failing to go through because of spelling and spacing that differed from the way they were registered in the immigration office database.

“Prior to this point vaccinations were distributed by the central agency (the KDCA), and this is the first time a municipal office is handling this,” he said. “Officials at public health centers in each district are working to see that the situation is sorted out as we speak. Anyone who is up for vaccination will get their appointment as soon as possible.”

But teachers in Seoul say they are still waiting to hear back.

One teacher, who is from the US, said in an email Sunday that all of the Korean teachers at her hagwon in Yangcheon, a southwestern district in Seoul, had been vaccinated this week, while none of the foreign teachers had.

“The foreign teachers are being told this is a technical issue. I thought foreigners were eligible to receive vaccinations in the same priority order as Korean citizens,” she said.

In a phone call on Sunday, a Seoul official said, “The city already has a list of workers who said they intended to get vaccinated, and all of them are eligible.” 

He said there has been “a problem with assigning a time slot for people whose names and other information like phone numbers were mistyped.” There were currently about 14,000 people, Korean and foreign, who had yet to receive confirmed dates of their vaccine appointments. 

“But this doesn’t mean their appointments have been canceled or that they aren’t eligible. They can still receive vaccination within this month,” he said.

He said rules had been changed so that “eligible people will be able to get their shot at any clinic of their choosing at any date before July 24” if they present their alien registration cards or other proof of identity. After an announcement Thursday, clinics have been given alien registration numbers, he said.

A senior official at the national health agency’s committee for COVID-19 vaccinations said in a Friday exchange with The Korea Herald that “Korea’s rollout has so far never left out foreigners from getting vaccinated at their turn. Leaving certain groups out of vaccinations helps nobody. It makes no sense, and that’s never been our approach.”

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)
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