The Vaccine Line Is an Illusion

People are stretching the truth to get the vaccine faster, but experts say I shouldn’t. Here’s why.

Image of a line of people on top of a syringe, with one person standing out
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

I’ve always been a rule follower. So when I learned that my state, Virginia, was currently vaccinating only people older than 65, people with health conditions, and essential workers, I decided to patiently wait my turn. I didn’t prowl around pharmacies and hospitals at closing time, hoping for an extra dose. A few weeks ago, I signed up for Virginia’s COVID-vaccine waitlist, closed my laptop, and turned on Netflix.

I was thrilled when I saw pictures of elderly people getting vaccinated. Finally, the most vulnerable are protected! Then friends with preexisting conditions started posting vaccine selfies, and I was excited for them too. But after that, more and more people my age—in their 20s and 30s—got the vaccine, and I began to question whether so many of my acquaintances were actually secret asthmatics. By now, it feels as if half the people I know have managed to get the vaccine, and I send each of them a “happy for u” text and also a silent ray of resentment.

Like Carrie Bradshaw, I’ve been typing away forlornly on my MacBook for the past year, and much like her, I couldn’t help but wonder: Am I a chump for just waiting my turn? Should I take that bad case of bronchitis that my doctor thought might have been asthma and spin it into a bona fide health risk? Should I fudge the fact that I vape e-cigarettes and call myself a smoker? After all, don’t we need to get to herd immunity as quickly as possible? I could be part of making that possible, and get back to yoga to boot.

People are definitely fibbing to get the vaccine early, experts say, though no one quite knows the extent of the problem. “I’m hearing a lot of entitled, empowered people, who are used to getting what they want, having conniptions about vaccination,” Arthur Caplan, the chief medical ethicist at NYU, told me. Few people, it seems, consider themselves nonessential. “I’ve asked about 30 people now, ‘Are you important in terms of your job?’” Caplan said. “And guess what? Twenty-nine of them said yes.” (The lone person who deemed themselves nonessential was a bank teller, he said.)

States, counties, hospitals, and other vaccine distributors are mostly running on the honor system, says Marcus Plescia, the chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. If you say you’re asthmatic or a UPS driver, you’ll probably slide right through. And there’s a good reason for that: People who have documentation of their medical problems are also more likely to have regular doctors and good record-keeping systems—things low-income, disconnected people might not have.

I live near Washington, D.C., which is full of people who never met a system they couldn’t game, so I am guessing the cheating is more common here than in areas where many people lack access to transportation or computers. In the southeastern U.S., for example, clinics have had a hard time filling slots, so some states have already opened up vaccination to additional age categories, Plescia told me.

Some line-jumpers are simply confused about the categories. Does the cloves phase you went through in college make you a “smoker”? Does working for a school, but not in a public-facing role, qualify you as an “essential worker”? Others are so determined to get a shot that they have signed up for practically every waiting list within a 100-mile radius.

[Read: The differences between the vaccines matter]

“People who get on multiple sites do tend to be successful,” Plescia said. But the problem is, once these folks get a shot, they forget to cancel their appointment at other sites. “And one of the reasons we think that some of the vaccine clinics are running a little slow is that a lot of people aren’t showing up, because they already got it somewhere else.”

I interviewed a few people who had stretched the truth to get a vaccine, and it sounded really tempting, even when the hoops they jumped through were extreme. (I agreed to use only their first names so they wouldn’t get dragged for their, uh, ingenuity.) One man, Alex, drove five hours round-trip to a small town in Wyoming, which he’d heard had extra doses. He truthfully answered all the screening questions except one: He doesn’t actually interact in-person with the general public.

Another man, Bob, drove to a Walgreens about an hour away from his county in Virginia. When he got there, he filled out a form saying he’s an essential worker. His claim was technically true, because he works for the government. But he can work from home. I asked him whether he thought I should do the same thing. “I would, I mean, because I did,” he said. “I would encourage others to do the same, because there’s nothing special about me.”

[Read: The second COVID-19 shot is a rude reawakening for immune cells]

But experts told me that, basically, it’s bad to lie about yourself in order to get something that is still in short supply. “My own husband has not gotten vaccinated, and I’ve not pulled any special strings for him,” Megan Ranney, an emergency physician who teaches at Brown University, told me. “He’s able to, for the most part, stay home. There’s a reason that we have the eligibility requirements that we do, which is to make sure that the people who are at highest risk of getting sick and dying are the first ones to get access.” She said that she thinks I should take the vaccine if it’s offered to me, but not try to sneak around the rules.

Plus, if everyone starts jumping the queue, they might create a mad rush for vaccines by motivated young people. “The moment people start feeling like other people aren’t playing by the rules, it changes everyone’s incentives,” says Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health. “They don’t want to be the chump who waited in line.”

“I feel like a chump for waiting in line,” I told him.

“Thank you,” he responded. Waiting is apparently exactly what I should do.

Everyone I interviewed pointed out one important thing: People like me won’t have to wait much longer. At least 31 states have said they will make vaccines available to all adults by mid-April, and some states and jurisdictions have already opened up vaccination to all adults. Virginia will supposedly allow all adults to get vaccinated starting on May 1. Then my vaccine FOMO will be over, and so will my life as a recluse.