COVID Vaccine: Some Wait, Others Hunt for Ways to Jump the Line

by Natalie Bettendorf
Also Featured on Here and Now

COVID Vaccine: Some Wait, Others Hunt for Ways to Jump the Line

by Natalie Bettendorf
Also Featured on Here and Now
03.24.21
Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images
03.24.21

In February, a friend from my school was able to get vaccinated. He told me over the phone when I was making dinner. I paused from confusion. “Wait, how?”

We had just started improving from the horrifying COVID-19 surge that had overtaken Los Angeles County in January when someone died from the virus every eight minutes. As I moved boxes into my Echo Park apartment during that time, sirens wailed at all hours of the day.

I’m a Bay Area native, but one reason why I came back to Los Angeles was that I was banking on the fact that I could get vaccinated through the medical school at my university. Since the start of the semester, USC has sent emails promising vaccines for students later in the spring. State officials recently announced that they would reserve 40% of vaccines for those living in low-income areas, a subtle swat to affluent, white people eager to grab their shot. It didn’t even really cross my mind to grab a vaccine any time before they were officially doled out to my age group.

But as my friend – who prefers to remain anonymous to avoid public shaming — explained to me on the phone a little over a month ago, there are loopholes in the California eligibility guidelines. Sure, you can’t change the fact that you’re younger than 65 years old, but you can alter your worker status. By signing up to volunteer with nonprofits offering community relief, you could become eligible for the vaccine by working a shift at a vaccination site or distributing clean water to homeless people.

My friend and four of his roommates signed up to volunteer with one of those organizations and were able to get vaccinated at Dodger Stadium within days as “health care workers.” My friend has diabetes but is otherwise young, healthy and active.

It is impossible to ignore the high internet literacy and free time during remote learning that allows college students to scour ways to skip the line. Oren Peleg wrote in Los Angeles Magazine earlier last month about line-skippers, inquiring, “is taking advantage of a flaw in the system ethical, especially when it won’t necessarily save your life but could hurt someone else?”

Last month, I got an email from my employer about my vaccine eligibility. Since I’m a literacy tutor for fourth-graders in LAUSD, I qualified as an educator in California’s Phase 1B. I immediately scheduled my appointment for the following weekend. I received my shot and afterward drove up to the tent where they were verifying why vaccine recipients were eligible. When an older woman asked me what my job was, my heart sped up. I stumbled over my words, over-explaining that I was a tutor, which meant I was an educator. She looked at me funny. 

“Okay, you’re a teacher,” she chuckled. “That’s all I needed to know.”

Why did I feel like I was lying? Probably because I’m a college student (at a private university who is guaranteed a shot on my own campus), not a teacher. I was honestly eligible, doing a job that I’d worked for months already with no plans to “use” it to get the vaccine. L.A. is full of vaccine jumpers who seem to have no remorse about getting the shot before more vulnerable people or essential workers. I have friends who have signed up for DoorDash and Postmates to receive the vaccine in what qualifies as a “food worker” in Phase 1B. Yet I still felt like I was a part of that, slipping into a loophole when my vaccine could have gone into a full-time teacher’s arm — a teacher depending on this shot to get back into their classroom and make a living.

At the end of the day, every person vaccinated is a win for the rest of society. If you’re trying to become eligible before it’s your turn, volunteering is a great way to use your privilege and give back. In fact, the state is encouraging it

We’re in an arms race against current and future variants and a collective desperation to get back to the “before times.” I’m not sure how long it will matter — if at all — how you got the vaccine. But we’ll certainly remember who got it first and who got it last. 

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