Is It Ever Okay to Jump the Line for the COVID-19 Vaccine?

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

With the problems in distribution for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, people are finding ways to get the vaccine though they aren’t in one of the high risk groups that should be the only ones getting in line.

Source: Wikimedia

My mother’s doctor wanted her to get the vaccine. Far be it from me to announce her actual age to the world so I’ll just say she’s definitely over 75. She was supposed to be having surgery and her doctors wanted her to have the protection before staying in the hospital.

Several people in the family including my cousin who was our family doctor until his retirement, spent hours day after day trying to find an available vaccine for her and weren’t able to do so. It was weeks before she managed to get the first one scheduled. The surgery was canceled, but the first shot wouldn’t have occurred until after it would have happened.

COVID — 19 vaccines are still in short supply. Many people who want them haven’t been able to get them yet, either because aren’t eligible based on the priorities set by their state or county, or because appointments aren’t available.

In a perfect world, there would be enough vaccines for everyone right now so that no one would have to decide what to do when placed in a moral situation when they have to decide what to do if able to get a vaccine out of order.

Posts are proliferating on social media from concerned people who are offered vaccines though they aren’t in one of the priority populations. A part time administrative nurse wonders if she should put off her shot so it could go to a full-time healthcare provider who sees COVID-19 patients. Someone who is obese and diabetic but who stays almost exclusively at home thinks he should let his dose go to someone unable to stay home.

Posts from people who could not find the vaccine although they are in high-risk groups express anger over others who they know who are at much lower risk but have already been inoculated. When O.J. Simpson posted photos of himself getting the shot, there were irate replies from countless people. One reader wrote:

“Yeah, that’s just what I want to see, O.J. getting his vaccine ahead of my elderly father and immune compromised me.” (Since Simpson is over 70 he was eligible for the shot).

The vaccine rollout has not gone smoothly in the U.S. where eligibility rules differ by state, county and sometimes even city. Although CDC released guidelines on how to fairly distribute the vaccine based on defined high risk groups, states have altered them, usually in order to ensure that what is available is quickly distributed. Whether or not you have access to the vaccine may depend not only on your age, health status, and occupation but also where you live, who you work for and who you know.

It can seem pretty unfair. So, given that the distribution is already inequitable, is it ethical to take a vaccine even though you are aware you are not in one of the high-risk categories?

Ethicists say it depends. There are some places that can’t get in the individuals that the shots are reserved for before the dose will go to waste. If this is the case, the ethicists agree that you should definitely have no qualms about taking it no matter what risk group you are in.

If you are asked by your pharmacist or health care provider if you would like the vaccine when you are there, you should take it, even if you are young, healthy, and not otherwise eligible for it at the time. It is likely due to defrosted and opened vials which will go unused before they must be discarded due to cancellations, or others conditions. By taking the vaccine and protecting yourself from contracting the virus you also will be protecting others who might have come into contact with you if you had caught it.

However, it might be better if this happens to you, to contact friends or family members who are in a high-risk group to see if they can get there in time to take the vaccine. I have seen several announcements on Nextdoor, which is a neighborhood app, from people who were getting their shot and learned from the provider they had extra who wanted to see if anyone in a high-risk group needed one.

I know of two other cases where older neighbors who had been unable to locate the vaccine were able to get it because two others nearby who were offered it though they weren’t eligible put word out on site. This is a great way to locate a vaccine if you are in a high-risk group but still can’t find anywhere that has enough for you to get one and to help out your neighbors who are in high-risk groups. This would also help re-establish some fairness into the process by having us be responsible for each other instead of relying solely on an overburdened healthcare system laboring under in a highly charged environment.

Do you think that people who are ineligible to receive the vaccine should be able to jump ahead of those who are eligible because they are in high risk groups? Share your answer in the comments below.

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Chicago, IL

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