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.
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“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.”