Access codes meant to give Californians of color priority access to Covid-19 vaccine slots have been getting passed around among other residents in the state, allowing some to cut the line and get appointments meant for underserved Black and Latino residents.
Misuse of these codes was reported at vaccine sites in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, said Brian Ferguson, spokesperson for the California office of emergency services, to the Guardian.
The codes were one of the tools devised by California leaders to address inequities in vaccine distribution in the state. They were given out to leaders and nonprofits in the Black and Latino communities in LA and the Bay Area to administer to eligible individuals – those 65 years or older, frontline healthcare workers, longterm care residents, and essential workers in the agriculture, food, education, childcare and emergency services sectors. Individuals then could use the code to book a vaccination appointment on the state’s vaccine scheduling website.
Instead, the codes ended up passed on by text message and email, oftentimes with misinformation. “My daughter says that the Oakland Coliseum needs to fill up appointment slots in the next few days to prevent spoilage of excess vaccines!” read an email that Oakland resident Jhumpa Bhattacharya received from a friend on Monday. “If you are interested in getting a vaccine before this Wednesday, the link and access code are pasted below. They’ll schedule appointments for both shots at the same time.”
The friend who forwarded Bhattacharya the email had gotten it from a mother at a preschool cooperative for families of color. That mother had received it from a woman who worked at a racial justice nonprofit. “It’s not quite the same story about the white affluent people in LA,” Bhattacharya said, referencing a Los Angeles Times investigation about the codes getting passed around by the “wealthier, work-from-home set in Los Angeles”. “I don’t think any of these people were ill-intentioned. Some of these people are essential workers and just aren’t eligible yet. People just want to get vaccinated so they can live their lives.”
Bhattacharya, 42, has no underlying health conditions, and had just undergone the arduous process of getting her parents a vaccination appointment in Los Angeles. She felt uncomfortable receiving the code. “I felt weird about it because I wasn’t on the list,” she said. “My husband said, ‘Well, if they’re spoiling, they’re spoiling.’ But that didn’t feel right either.”
There is absolutely no validity to the rumors that vaccines are spoiling at these vaccination sites, Ferguson said.
By the time Bhattacharya and her husband went to book an appointment, there were no appointments available. The code, however, still worked and got them into the website.
It should never come as a surprise that there will be individuals who will find ways to cut the line, said Sonja Diaz, the founding director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at the University of California, Los Angeles, to the Guardian. “But this is also a scarcity issue of people wanting to save their lives and this is the Hunger Games,” Diaz said.
While Diaz is heartened by the state’s commitment to equity in the vaccine rollout, she thinks officials need to be doing a better job in understanding cultural barriers and grasping the digital divide that exists across low-income communities.
“When we talk about vaccine access, we need to meet people where they are,” she said. “We need to door-knock. We need to follow up. We need to meet people where they are, the same way we did with the Affordable Care Act and the 2020 Census.”
The misuse of the vaccine access codes is “what happens when you have technocrats and bureaucrats who are well-intentioned but are not well-equipped to focus on tried and true methods that are culturally and linguistically competent”, Diaz said.
“The individual level of wealth and greed, it’s so American, it’s not novel,” Diaz said. “Why are we giving them the tools to be successful at that?”
State officials thought that by handing out vaccine access codes through community leaders, they would bridge any cultural or language barriers while also addressing the issue of the digital divide by giving these eligible individuals special access to the website, Ferguson said. “We don’t want people to be able to get appointments based on who has the fastest internet connection,” he said.
Since learning of the misuse, the state will begin issuing individualized codes rather than group codes next week. In addition to these codes, the state has been setting up mobile vaccination clinics in these specific communities in hopes of reaching these underserved residents. “We’ve only been open (at these vaccination sites) for a week and I would say we learned a lot,” Ferguson said. “We will probably know a lot more next week than we did this week and we will evolve in how we do these vaccinations.”
California has administered more than 7.76m doses of the vaccine since it began distribution. Early on, the state was criticized for its slow rollout, due in part to its stringent, tiered guidelines for who qualified for a vaccine – with 19,933 doses administered per 100,000 residents, California still ranks in the bottom half of states in terms of rollout in the country. Gavin Newsom, California’s governor who is facing a recall effort, spent the last week making publicized visits to vaccination sites across the state.
The individuals who ended up getting vaccinated by misusing an access code will not be penalized, Ferguson said, but he noted that the forms they filled out are official government documents and there could be repercussions if any of them misrepresented any information on them.
Ferguson said the state has had people reach out to acknowledge that they made a mistake and apologize. “The general sense we have is that there is not maliciousness involved in this,” he said. “There’s just such a thirst to get vaccinated.”
Bhattacharya, the Oakland resident who received the code in an email, worried that the misinformation accompanying these codes most likely convinced a lot of individuals to use them when they probably would not have otherwise.
“I think everybody was doing this with good intentions, that it was about vaccinations spoiling,” she said. “When I got the email, I just thought, ‘This is really messed up. Why are vaccinations spoiling?’ We’re not doing a very good job getting to the communities they need to get to.”