Life

“Hmm, Maybe I Shouldn’t Be Prioritized”

The vaccinated “edge cases” that are making people angry.

A woman holding a vaccine card with a Band-Aid on her arm looking behind her at an older man in line after her.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Paul, a 43-year-old in New York who was diagnosed with high blood pressure three years ago, got his first dose of the coronavirus vaccine in late February, once hypertension was listed as a qualifying condition. That was the easy part.

“I didn’t have any hesitation signing up to get it, but I had extreme hesitation telling anybody about it,” he said. “I was afraid there would be a lot of judgment involved.” He talked to select friends about it, who assured him that getting the shot “as quickly as you can” will also help reduce the COVID-19 risk for everyone else. And he happened to know of a vaccine appointment–finding website where he could book his shot. Since many others don’t know this website exists, he worried he was contributing to the inequality of a public health effort.

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“The fact that finding these appointments has turned into The Hunger Games just made me feel bad about it,” he said. “If they actually made a legitimate piece of software where everybody could just sign up, you could just tell them what your condition was, and they just like put you in a queue, I would have felt fine about the whole thing.”

If social media is any indication, elderly people and health care workers aren’t the only ones getting vaccinated these days. Seemingly everyone is now securing a shot. After a bumpy start, 2.4 million shots, on average, are now being administered a day. By May 1, we’ll all be able to sign up to receive an inoculation. But in the meantime, many people seem to be looking around and wondering … how did that person get the vaccine? You might have yourself checked the eligibility requirements and realized that you, too, can claim a spot—even though you don’t really consider yourself high risk for COVID-19.

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“My BMI was .1 over the obesity line,” said Woo, in New York, where obesity defined by body mass index qualified people for the vaccine in February. (For this article, we used first, middle, or anonymized names, to avoid causing further social trouble for our subjects.) He was careful not to work out once he made the appointment. “I was thinking, ‘What if they make me step on a scale?’ ”

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Woo was paranoid enough that he also came up with a little script in case an acquaintance asked him why he’d been able to get the shot. “It was something like, ‘Oh yeah, it turns out I’m obese, so I qualify! Hahaha isn’t that funny lol, BMI is a made-up metric anyways.’ ”

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It is of course possible to be “obese” by this definition and also healthy—which is why Nati, in Pennsylvania, was a little surprised to learn that he qualified for early access. “I assumed I would be one of the later people to get vaccinated,” he said, explaining that his doctor had never discussed his weight as much of a health risk. He didn’t have qualms claiming the shot itself. “Whoever the people who are making these guidelines know more about this stuff than I do,” he said.

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Many expressed this sentiment—and if you qualify, you should not hesitate to get the shot. Experts have noted again and again that the system is just not able to put people in the exact perfect order and make vaccinations happen quickly. But letting others know you got it is another matter. Josh, a fitness trainer in Los Angeles, who qualified for the vaccine through work with a law enforcement agency, learned this the hard way. Since he didn’t skip any lines, Josh thought it would be fine to tell people he got the vaccine—but people reacted with surprising anger. “I told two people and regretted it,” he said. “I thought telling people would put them more at ease around me, but then it backfired.” He did not elaborate.

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Mohamed, in New Jersey, was caught off guard by the haphazard distribution of shots. He preregistered in November because he has moderate asthma. While the condition currently doesn’t really affect his life, he signed up anyway.

“I assumed that I would be scheduled only after the rest of the high-risk and elderly people got theirs first,” he said. When he got a link to schedule his appointment, he was excited—initially.

“At first, I was stoked because I thought it was some kind of luck that I got called up,” he said. After he got his first dose, however, he started to feel guilty that he’d gotten it ahead of his parents. “I got my ‘I got the shot’ sticker and shoved it into my coat pocket and that was it.” He thought about the box that he checked on the form to register, and how odd it was to be lumped into the same category, for vaccine-queue purposes, as people with cancer and heart failure. “I think it’s a little more than stupid to put those three in the same category,” he said.

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The logic of which particular jobs qualify for the vaccine can be a little unclear, too. A woman who was working as a paralegal in Pennsylvania explained that she felt slightly weird about qualifying as part of the state’s “1B” group rollout, since she only went into the office a couple days a week and didn’t have to interact with anyone. “It felt a little like, ‘Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t be prioritized,’ ” she said. But she also explained that since the vaccine rollout had been handled so poorly, “I knew I needed to just get it as soon as I could.” Soon after, she switched to a role that will involve more in-person interaction.

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An attorney who works for the city of New York had the opposite experience: She said she thought she and her colleagues should have qualified for the vaccine under the state’s 1B guidelines, which include essential workers and specifically court officers—she has to go into courts in person. But her workplace told her that this did not include her.

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“I must say, it was odd to see people who qualified and were working fully remotely, always, while I was having to go in and didn’t qualify,” she said. She hastened to add the vaccine-FOMO disclaimer of our moment that, of course, you never know what underlying conditions someone has. She considered going ahead and signing up anyway. But before she could make a choice, new guidance came out opening the vaccine to all public-facing employees, allowing her to make an appointment.

As it stands in New York, it’s fairly easy to get a vaccine without even having proof of a condition. A 35-year-old New Yorker, Alex, said that he has “undiagnosed hypertension”—meaning his blood pressure was sometimes high, but a doctor has never discussed it with him as a specific medical condition. He’d also spent the year eating in restaurants, traveling, and seeing friends. “I felt that I was likely to get COVID sooner or later,” he said. When he went to his appointment, no one asked for his medical records at the site. “I think there’s kind of a wink and a nod, and they’re not looking too hard, because they want people to get vaccinated.”

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After seeing how easily Alex got his vaccine, his girlfriend, Sydney, wanted to get a shot. She has no underlying conditions, but she does have undiagnosed anxiety, she said. (“Neurologic conditions” are listed as an eligible condition; anxiety is generally considered a psychiatric disorder.) “I definitely toyed with this and the morality of it, but the more people that I talked to, it was kind of like: ‘We all are going to have to get it, so you might as well just get it as fast as you can,’ ” she said. Sydney went to her appointment not entirely confident it would work, since she didn’t have proof, though, she joked, “many people who know me would just say, ‘Of course there’s something wrong with her.’ ” If asked, she decided to just say she forgot her proof at home. “It was like, ‘no harm, no foul,’ ” she said. “Like, I’m going to give it a shot, and if it works, great, and if doesn’t, fine, I’ll wait until it’s my turn.” She’s now vaccinated.

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