For Teresita Batayola, landing doses of the COVID vaccine for her Seattle clinic is like chasing tickets to a hot concert or winning a golden ticket. She also put the hunt for vaccinations in starker terms: “We have people referring to this as The Hunger Games.”
After Washington state expanded vaccine eligibility last month to include seniors ages 65 and up (and people over 50 in multigenerational households), Batayola tried several times to order doses for her nonprofit clinics, called International Community Health Services, which serve thousands of low-income residents, primarily refugees and immigrants within the Asian and Pacific Islander communities. “I’m a persistent person,” Batayola said. “I kept banging on doors with texts, emails, phone calls. That’s why the local public health jurisdiction worked to transfer some shots to us.”
But at Overlake Medical Center & Clinics in Bellevue, just a short drive from Batayola’s facilities, hospital executives didn’t have as much trouble securing vaccines. The hospital system scored enough to offer them up to 110 donors who forked over more than $10,000, the Seattle Times reported. “Dear Overlake major donors,” began one Jan. 22 email from Overlake’s chief development officer. “We’re pleased to share that we have 500 new open appointments in the Overlake COVID-19 vaccine clinic, beginning this afternoon and tomorrow and next week.”
The revelation sparked outrage over inequities in the state’s vaccine rollout, and Overlake issued an apology days later, saying in part, “We recognize we made a mistake by including a subset of our donors and by not adopting a broader outreach strategy to fill these appointments, and we apologize.” (Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett and EvergreenHealth in Kirkland also offered invite-only vaccines, the Times reported.)
Since COVID inoculations became available in December, accusations of VIP inoculations for the wealthy are making headlines across the country. And it’s not just celebrity doctors and fitness coaches who are allegedly jumping the vaccine line, but also hospital bigwigs and their relatives. Hospital donors, board members and executives (and in some cases, their younger friends and family) reportedly scored early vaccines in Rhode Island, New Jersey, Georgia, California, Oregon and Maine.
MaineGeneral Health in Augusta gave at least a dozen donors vaccine doses in a pilot program, and also offered shots to retired medical staff. One hospital spokesperson told the newspaper, the Kennebec Journal, “In hindsight, had we known that this was going to be perceived this way, we would have done things differently. We never intended to give anyone any privileged access.”
Reports of invite-only immunizations arrive at a time when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning of “potential disparities” in COVID vaccinations. According to the CDC, only 5.4 percent of vaccine recipients were Black, while 11.5 percent were Hispanic and Latino American, and 60.4 percent were white.
Batayola called the red-carpet COVID jabs “more than disappointing.” A number of her patients are older and working in grocery stores, restaurants, or cleaning companies. She said many live in multigenerational households, in part because of Seattle’s expensive housing market. “The privileged always have privilege,” Batayola said. “In a pandemic, when it’s well known who is the most affected—seniors, communities of color, the essential workers—it was just beyond belief.”
She said King County’s public health department recently helped her to get 500 doses and had convinced a larger hospital to transfer several hundred more to her clinics. “The fact that the local Public Health was able to transfer things around shows the state has some built-in inefficiencies or inequity in the [allocation] system,” she said.
The reports of special treatment resulted in members of Congress writing a letter to Norris Cochran, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, asking the agency to ban preferential access to shots.
The King County Council also passed a motion condemning vaccine disparities and demanding the governor and Washington State Legislature take action to prohibit hospitals and other facilities from giving donors, board members and their ilk priority. “People want to play by the system and play by the rules. They’re eligible and they can’t get an appointment, even though they go through the steps,” said Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who crafted the motion because she was “appalled” by three local hospitals prioritizing patrons. “There’s almost a feeling now that you’re trying to buy a lottery ticket. If you get an appointment, you won the lottery.”
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan had also called for a ban on VIP access to vaccines and for officials to redistribute doses to community health clinics that serve people of color. “This is eroding trust in government at a time when public confidence is crucial for the health and recovery of our communities,” Durkan said in a statement in late January.
On Monday, Washington state officials announced the creation of the Vaccine Equity Initiative, a public-private partnership which aims to raise $30 million to help inoculate underserved communities. According to the initiative’s website, part of the effort will include creating mobile clinics to ensure “vulnerable elders and individuals from BIPOC and immigrant and refugee communities can more readily get vaccinated in their local neighborhoods and home communities.”
In Maryland, two hospital systems doled out vaccines to their board members before offering them to the public, according to the Baltimore Sun and the Daily Record, a business newspaper. Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis offered vaccines to its 21 board members (and 11 members of its parent company), while the Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson offered doses to the 68 members across its three boards. The hospitals claimed they didn’t violate any state guidelines on COVID inoculations because the board members were “volunteers” and equally as eligible as the facilities’ low-risk workers.
Still, one relative of a GBMC board member said the hospital also offered vaccines to spouses of board members and to former volunteers—all at a time when the state was in “Phase 1A” of its distribution, which gave priority to health care workers, nursing home residents and staff and first responders.
“I felt happy for them, but angered that they did not acknowledge their privilege in receiving it so early,” the relative told The Daily Beast, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They are both in their mid to late eighties, so they would have been eligible very soon after anyway.”
In upstate New York, the University of Rochester Medical Center also faced a backlash for greenlighting vaccines for “major donors.” The facility’s chief fundraiser, Kellie Anderson, told staff in an email that patrons could book their inoculations through a “special patient services vaccine clinic,” according to public radio station WXXI News.
“Some of you may have received emails or phone calls from donors who would like to receive a COVID vaccine at URMC,” the Jan. 12 email said, before directing staff to pass along requests from donors but not to solicit them directly. Anderson said only donors who were eligible for the vaccine would be considered, but they’d also have to list why they should get special access. (According to WXXI, “One of the acceptable reasons was that they were a ‘major donor.’”)
The email added that a senior nurse practitioner had “a limited supply of vaccine and she already has a list of Executive Health clients and high level donors she will be vaccinating, many of whom she has already contacted.”
Executive Health was a concierge medical service for the wealthy—including the University of Rochester’s major donors and corporate clients—but the hospital discontinued the program last week amid the controversy surrounding the donor inoculations. In a statement, CEO Mark B. Taubman said the program was no longer in line with the hospital’s values and “discontinuing programs that focused on a relatively small number of privileged individuals will enable us to improve access to services of exceptional quality for all patients.”
The statement came days after a hospital ethics committee wrote to Taubman and university president Sarah Mangelsdorf, saying the donor invitation undermined efforts by community members and Medical Center staff to ensure the vaccine is being “delivered in a just and equitable fashion” and not excluding people of color.
“Programs such as Special Patient Relations perpetuate a two-tiered health system where those who are wealthy, and predominately white, enjoy unfettered access to health care while across the city and the region countless others struggle to find access to the most basic levels of care,” Strong Memorial Hospital’s Ethics Committee wrote on Feb. 2.
Meanwhile, one Connecticut school board is under fire for reserving vaccines for its members, administrators, and their spouses.
In Woodbury, Connecticut, Board of Education members got doses of the COVID-19 shot before the district’s teachers at a Jan. 20 clinic. The district had previously scheduled three weeks’ worth of vaccination clinics but was forced to cancel them after the state made clear that only people ages 75 and older were eligible.
As a result, the local health department was permitted to vaccinate educators for one day only, and that included more than 300 employees across three districts—including Region 14, which includes the towns of Woodbury and Bethlehem. All future appointments for the district’s teachers had been canceled.
Joseph Olzacki, the Superintendent of Schools for Region 14, has denied he and his fellow board members cut the line. He told the News-Times, a newspaper in Danbury, “I understand that they are upset, but the upset-ness has to be with the state of Connecticut.”
Two board members have since resigned, and 97 percent of the district’s teachers voted “no confidence” in Olzacki and COVID officer Mark Hartunian. The board also voted to open an independent investigation into the clinic. “I’m doing the best job I can under extenuating circumstances and have no intention of resigning,” Olzacki told the Hartford Courant following the no-confidence vote.
Chris York, president of the Nonnewaug Teachers’ Association, said the vaccinations should have gone to teachers first. “We’re still waiting to find out how they made the list—why the list was created the way it was,” York told The Daily Beast.
York, who has preexisting health conditions, was one of few Region 14 teachers to be vaccinated during the clinic. Afterward, he heard from eyewitnesses who allegedly saw board members and central office staff bring their spouses to get vaccinated. Some witnesses even claimed to see one parent of a student attend the vaccination day.
“They brought board members, parents and spouses,” said York, a high school science teacher in the district for 21 years. “You’re taking shots away from teachers in their sixties with underlying health conditions. This is really wrong. I’m concerned to think someone might get sick from this, and that we could have vaccinated somebody.”
York said the district was informed on a Monday that all its vaccination clinics would be canceled except for one scheduled for the following Wednesday. “They had Monday and Tuesday to adjust the list they previously created,” York said.
Indeed, Olzacki told another local newspaper, the Republican-American, that he was asked to make a list of 60 people from the “education community” to receive the vaccine. He claimed he sent surveys to 300 district employees to gauge their interest in getting a shot and that 100 didn’t respond. (Olzacki did not return messages seeking comment.)
One 50-year-old teacher in the district, who asked not to be named out of fear of reprisal, said she filled out a survey but was never contacted about setting up an appointment. She was surprised to hear the district’s board members were some of the first in line for the sought-after inoculations. “It didn’t seem like it was real,” she said. “If the vaccine clinic can happen, why isn’t it teachers?”
The teacher said she was hoping educators would be vaccinated for the students’ sake. Anytime a staff member has tested positive, her school moves into remote learning. “The reason we ended up going remote was because we had too many teachers quarantining and we didn’t have enough substitute teachers,” the teacher said. “We had some teachers get COVID, or family members who were exposed.”
“It’s much more difficult for the kids,” she added. “It’s hard for them to keep their motivation and to stay engaged. They have their mics off, cameras off. You’re talking to yourself and hoping someone answers once in a while.”
In a letter to citizens and taxpayers, York said the other two school districts who participated in the clinic “sent teachers and other school staff to the clinic according to the plan.” He claimed Olzacki had announced at a Jan. 4 Board of Education meeting that teachers with underlying health conditions would be first to receive the shot, followed by educators who are in close contact with students.
“We expect transparency in our district and among our leaders,” York wrote. “Instead we have an administration that has failed to take responsibility for the problem and has shifted the blame onto others.”