I got some good news Wednesday: My dad, who somehow turns 70 this year, texted me to let me know that he’d gotten his first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech-made Covid-19 vaccine. I hadn’t even known he’d gotten an appointment.
The overwhelming relief I felt wasn’t just because, after his second dose, he’ll be safe for the first time in over a year. I was relieved because there was no guarantee in my mind that he’d get one any time soon. The rollout across the country has been at times confusing, jarring and infuriating.
Meanwhile, wealthy Americans are reported to be scrambling to acquire doses ahead of the rest of the plebeians. In a health care system that rewards the rich in every other area, it’s not surprising that this is the case with the vaccine rollout. Even if they’re unlikely to succeed, nothing has ever suggested that they might not be able to flash some cash to jump the line for medical care. The fact that there’s so much room for confusion and desperation has made it all the easier for them to exploit their connections and resources. But we shouldn’t be in a position where it even makes sense for them to try.
And try they have. It’s galling to see reports that donors to a major Seattle-area hospital are getting access to invitation-only vaccine reservation slots. (The facility realized it had made a faux pas after it got a phone call from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s office.) Things are even wilder in Los Angeles, where the well-heeled keep trying to bend the rules.
“We’ve been offered bribes. We see people taking planes to every location. We’ve seen people try to transiently get into the health care profession or on staff at nursing homes, so they qualify for an early vaccine,” Dr. Robert Huizenga, a Beverly Hills physician, told Variety.
Beyond the outright grifts and throwing of money at the problem, structural divisions are making things worse. Dallas officials had to adjust after they realized that a disproportionate number of vaccine doses went to high-income ZIP codes, while barely any went to ZIP codes with the highest Covid-19 rates.
The “Hunger Games” situation, as an L.A. entertainment executive described it, is based on the vaccine supply’s being obscenely below the demand for it. And the fractured nature of the country’s response has given us 50 different schemes for getting needles in arms, confusing and complicating matters.
States have been running out of vaccine doses, leading to the cancellations of thousands of appointments as of last week. Millions of older Americans are forced to navigate their states’ online systems, only to find every slot taken up when they arrive. It has turned boomers and their parents into a warped version of gamers parked at their computers waiting for news of a new PlayStation 5 shipment to drop.
There will be enough vaccine doses for everyone once production and distribution are where they should be. President Joe Biden said Tuesday that his administration would order millions more doses from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna and speed shipments to states. The government also will start letting states know how much vaccine they’ll get for the next three weeks, rather than week to week.
That’s a welcome but extremely late development after the previous administration’s flailing start. States should have had this information weeks ago. There should be far more clarity about when everyone will be able to get their shots rather than the wild guesswork we’ve seen. Every city and state should be able to guarantee enough vaccine for everyone and a smooth process to ensure that it gets distributed quickly and fairly by now.
But as that hasn’t happened yet, the system has defaulted to its usual disparities in access to treatment. The shutting out of Black Americans, the upper class’s trying to skip the line while seniors slept in their cars this month waiting for the chance of a shot, the implied scarcity of a public good — it all mirrors broader problems in American health care. The botched rollout isn’t a fluke — it’s the norm, just with a brighter spotlight.
I think that’s why we hate stories about rich people straining to be vaccinated ahead of others so much. They’re going to need to be vaccinated eventually, so we don’t begrudge them that. We begrudge them because it reminds us that our health care system is so unfairly tilted toward the wealthy that it’s almost a relief to have someone specific to be angry at.
The odds were stacked against my dad, an older Black man who’s far from rich. Michigan’s vaccination rate is 16th in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — not the best, but not the worst. Many states aren’t tracking the data of who’s getting vaccinated by race, but the death rates for Covid-19 are clear along racial lines. The odds have plummeted that he’ll become a data point. I wish the system could say when that will be the case for millions of other dads out there.