As soon as she tapped the link, Kristin Thornburg knew something was amiss.
It was earlier this month, and Thornburg, 31, had been strategizing with a friend via text to try to get leftover doses of the coronavirus vaccine. Neither woman was technically eligible yet in the Bay Area, so Thornburg figured the garbage-bound extras were their best hope. Ideally, Thornburg said, they would get on a list to receive a phone call if a local pharmacy or vaccination site had unused doses from no-show appointments.
The friend sent over a link to an unfamiliar page and said she had signed up there. An acquaintance had gotten a vaccine that way, the friend said. Perhaps Thornburg should sign up, too.
But it was not just a way to get leftovers. “At first I thought I had gotten it wrong, because it was obviously an appointment sign-up page,” said Thornburg, a business manager at a startup. After her name, the form asked her to identify which qualifying condition or occupation she had.
Thornburg asked her friend if she’d sent the wrong link. She dodged. “She was like, ‘Well, I don’t know. I just did it. I’ll see what happens.'” When Thornburg pressed her for details about what exactly she had written into the form, she got a shrug emoji in response.
A week later, Thornburg’s friend texted her again, excitedly announcing she had gotten her first vaccine dose. “She said, ‘It was fine, they didn’t even ask me about my job when I got there!'” Thornburg said.
Thornburg was shaken. “I was surprised at how immediate and negative my reaction was,” she said. When a close friend “just acts in a way that I wouldn’t and feel is strongly wrong in this kind of life-or-death moment or pandemic, it just — it felt almost like a betrayal.”
Thornburg wondered, too, if she was alone in feeling personally offended by someone else’s line-jumping. Was that even a thing? “I immediately went to Google,” she said.
She wasn’t, and isn’t. Twitter users have been venting all month long about watching their friends and loved ones lie to get the coveted jab: “I’m out here trying to decide if my heart condition is condition enough; my best friend just lied about being pregnant to be eligible,” wrote one. “A healthy, 30 (-year-old) friend of mine just told me that he lied & claimed a fake medical condition to get the vaccine early. I don’t know exactly what to think,” wrote another. On March 18, Trevor Noah referred to the coronavirus vaccine on an episode of “The Daily Show” as “that thing you’re pretty sure your friend lied to get.”
Even public health officials have acknowledged that the existing systems are easy to abuse. California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently described the efforts to prevent vaccine line-cutting as “whack-a-mole every single day.”
The rules seem simple enough: For hundreds of millions of people to receive a lifesaving vaccine efficiently, you have to wait your turn. But as many Americans wait, they’re watching others exploit the system in plain view. And while some of the moral murkiness of the moment is rooted in the uneven, somewhat haphazard vaccine rollout in much of the country, the truth is that some friends may never see their line-jumping loved ones the same way again.
It’s an imperfect system, and every time a shot goes in an arm, we get closer to herd immunity and we all benefit, goes one side of the argument. But when someone jumps the line, one more person who really needs a shot can’t get one, goes the other — and it’s particularly painful when that person is someone you love.
After learning about her friend’s vaccination, Thornburg thought of her mother, a cancer survivor with a fragile immune system who hadn’t yet become eligible. “My mom hasn’t been in a grocery store since last March,” Thornburg said.
Jakub, a 19-year-old college student who’s been attending classes remotely from his home near Schaumburg, Ill., felt similarly appalled when he recently saw a Snapchat of two of his local friends, also college students, flashing their vaccine cards. Jakub, who spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his first name to avoid any unwanted publicity for his family or friends, asked how they’d qualified before his girlfriend, who has asthma, or his dad, who has a heart condition.
Jakub’s friends texted him back and explained that they didn’t have any underlying medical conditions. They’d just said, falsely, that they were smokers (a qualifying condition in Illinois).
He hasn’t spoken to either one since. “I left them on read.”
The blame for some of the heartache should land partly on the vaccine distribution system, according to Carmel Shachar, the executive director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.
Certainly, those perfectly healthy people who lie on their intake forms “should not feel good about themselves,” Shachar said. “Ultimately, the prioritization schemes are well-intentioned and do serve a valuable purpose, in that we’re trying to find people who are uniquely vulnerable.”
But Shachar does sympathize with those tempted to fib about a health problem or use an old address to qualify for a vaccine — especially when different areas have different rules. “The more you finely slice and dice prioritization categories and do certain occupations but not others, the more you risk somebody saying, ‘Well, there’s no benefit to me for waiting, and the system is not looking out for my interest,’ ” Shachar said.
Early in the year, for example, New York expanded its vaccine eligibility to include certain categories ahead of neighboring Pennsylvania. A 27-year-old immunocompromised software developer who moved in with his parents in Bucks County, Pa., during the pandemic briefly wondered if he would have to dig out his old New York City ID card and make a two-hour drive if he became eligible there first. (He spoke on the condition of anonymity to keep his health status private.)
In the end, he didn’t have to: He stumbled across a pharmacy page that mistakenly granted vaccination appointments in Pennsylvania to pretty much anyone. He managed to secure a shot for himself, his parents and grandmother before the site was taken offline. By the time he received his shot, he was technically eligible. His take: “Huge ethical dilemma, right?”
The moral clashes between Americans over who gets the vaccine in March and who gets it in May seem petty given that many people in other countries aren’t projected to get it until 2022. But they’ve been disruptive nonetheless.
Thornburg isn’t sure when she and her friend will start interacting normally again. She certainly isn’t ready to just resume their usual lighthearted, GIF-heavy daily text exchange. “I’m still too torn up about it,” she said.
But on the other hand, she recognizes that the time she got into a fight about hopping the coronavirus vaccine priority line will soon be a quaint, time-capsule kind of memory. Six months from now, “when everyone I know has gotten a vaccine and I’m not thinking about it as much anymore,” Thornburg said, “this will be on the back burner, and we’ll still be friends.”