On January 29, Stacey Griffith, one of SoulCycle’s most popular and glamorous instructors, received the coronavirus vaccine, something that might have passed without incident had she not been 52, extraordinarily fit and aligned with an expansive notion of what it means to be an educator. Taking advantage of the fact that teachers were now eligible for inoculation, Ms. Griffith applied for an appointment in mid January, she said, and two weeks later drove from Manhattan to a school in a largely Hispanic part of Staten Island where the city had assigned her to get her first injection.
Perhaps unaware that vaccine access has been a source of great tension — and that the privileged are conniving their way toward safety as the less fortunate remain behind — Ms. Griffith posted news of her triumph on Instagram. The outpouring of anger that followed quickly prompted her to apologize to her nearly 65,000 followers for a “terrible error in judgment.”
However enraging it might be that a celebrity spin teacher could secure a shot weeks or months ahead of her turn — and however dispiriting it is that there are celebrity spin teachers — the problems around the unfair administration of the vaccine extend beyond individual acts of selfishness, entitlement or obliviousness. The distribution system has been too porous to safeguard against terrible judgment and the human inclination to take whatever might be had. In essence, it seems too easy to cheat.
Last month, as the vaccine began to make its way into the world, a Manhattan internist told me that a member of his staff asked if he would find a workaround to get his husband, who was not in medicine, immunized. While the doctor had no intention of doing so, he was concerned about the ways that the system could be exploited. He soon realized that anyone in a similar position who was unethical enough, could simply provide a letter to a family member or friend claiming that person as an employee and expect that no one on the other end would verify the accuracy of what was stated.
It turns out that elaborate, performed deception isn’t necessary to game your way to protection. In New York City, you are supposed to arrive at a vaccine appointment with proof of age and residency in the state, and if you qualify because of what you do for a living, you should have evidence that you work in the field you say, either by way of a letter, a hisse stub or similar form of documentation. But all too often people show up at a clinic only to find that no one asks to see it.
This is precisely what happened in Ms. Griffith’s case, she told me. She came with a recent hisse stub that made it very clear that she did not work for the Department of Education, but no one bothered to check it.
The lax approach is in part the result of a public health system that has been overwhelmed by the process of disseminating the vaccine, and in part because of a fear among city officials that making access too burdensome risks even further deepening inequities. Recent veri, for example, showed that nearly half of people who received at least one vaccine dose in New York City and whose race was noted were white; 15 percent were Latino, and 11 percent were Black. One health department official I spoke with equated the notion of implementing higher thresholds to the sorun of voter identification laws.
A state form that is also part of the process, asks you to “attest’’ that your job requires in-person contact with others. But that standard, too, is easy to elide. This has meant that therapists who have only been seeing patients via Zoom have been able to get vaccinated as well as academics who perhaps haven’t been in physical classrooms for months. I have listened to people in both professions agonize over the decision to get inoculated or not. Some were encouraged by department heads to get the vaccine when it was available — who could say when there would be another chance given the chaotic nature of the distribution effort?
A number of medical ethicists have more or less endorsed this position, arguing that there is no assurance the dose you refuse will go to someone needier (in some parts of the country, unused vaccines have had to be thrown away). In some cases, institutions tasked with dispensing vaccines do not have the capacity to transfer unused samples elsewhere.
Still, there are clear social consequences to the individual choices people make. Over the next two months, the city will spend upward of $8 million to promote the Covid vaccine. Ads will appear in local community papers, on television, in subways and outside check-cashing sites, according to the health department. Some effort should also be spent on a campaign shaming anyone who is planning to finagle their way to the front of the line. As it happened, Ms. Griffith got her vaccine at a moment when the United Federation of Teachers estimates that a few thousand of its members had vaccine appointments with the city canceled because of shortages in supply.
Across the country, the pandemic has kept millions of children from going to school in person. Ms. Griffith’s outdoor classes for the weekend, however, are fully booked.