For most eligible Washington residents, securing a COVID-19 vaccination requires a high tolerance for frustration. Vaccine shortages, convoluted websites, short-notice clinic events and waiting lists have all made the process hard to navigate. Except, that is, for privileged insiders extended special access by area medical systems. 

That even one hospital committed such a glaring ethical lapse is shocking. That three separate Puget Sound providers played vaccine concierge for board members, fundraisers and other favored friends beggars belief. The rollout of these vaccinations was already inequitable. People who lack internet access have a much harder time finding clinics than those with quick web connections. As Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said, the proper mission is to combat vaccine inequity through deliberate outreach to underserved communities.

But as Seattle Times reporters found, the opposite happened — repeatedly.  

On Jan. 16, EvergreenHealth in Kirkland debuted a new appointment system first for hospital board members — frequently, big donors — along with hospital volunteers and community-group organizers. Everett’s Providence Regional Medical Center extended an invitation Jan. 19 to “valued” donors, board members and fundraising volunteers to an exclusive upcoming vaccination clinic “as a courtesy.” And on Jan. 22, Overlake Medical Center & Clinics emailed donors of more than $10,000 offering “500 new open appointments” for vaccine shots.

An EvergreenHealth physician diagnosed this sorry sequence accurately in just three words: “made me nauseated.” 

The pandemic has been especially brutal on communities of color. Vaccine rollout should have been laser-focused on correcting this inequity. Yet in 13 of 16 states examined by Kaiser Family Foundation, white people have grabbed a disproportionate share of vaccinations compared to their rate of COVID-19 cases. 

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The system must improve. Washington’s focus of early vaccination phases on the elderly shows how to target critical populations. EvergreenHealth would have been better served soft-launching its booking mechanism via outreach to an underserved group, instead of opening it to system-savvy insiders. Any appearance of favoritism undermines a vaccination process reliant on widespread public participation. After Durkan called for action, the state’s Department of Health threatened to cut vaccine supply for inequitable providers.

Every American deserves a better vaccine launch than the federal government provided. Great Britain, by contrast, aggressively mobilized national outreach, instead of having providers ask seniors to visit a website or call a phone number. As a result, that country leads all large nations in vaccination rate. American know-how must turn this debacle around. The Puget Sound hospitals that failed their ethical duty with inexcusable favoritism should now champion an equitable process.

The early days of Washington’s mass vaccination project have brought successes, too. Most hospitals opened the doors freely to all qualified recipients. When a Kaiser Permanente freezer failed Jan. 28, the University of Washington Medical Center and Swedish Medical Center leapt to the task of getting hundreds of the prized expiring shots into qualified recipients within hours.

Providers can make this system work by acting conscientiously. All hospitals should step up to get the greater public immunized on a fair basis. COVID-19 plays no favorites. The vaccination process must be equitable for all.