So People Are Now Stealing COVID Vaccines

The slow rollout has left people confused, desperate, and in some cases, facing ethical dilemmas.
January 27, 2021, 7:14pm
A Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine vial is seen marked with the time it left the cooler next to syringes loaded with the vaccine at a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination site at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in the Bronx borough of New York
A Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine vial is seen marked with the time it left the cooler next to syringes loaded with the vaccine at a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination site at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in the Bronx borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

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The vaccine rollout has been slow and confusing. And some people have taken it into their own hands to make sure they and their loved ones have a chance to get the shot—or even to avoid wasting the precious doses at all. 

In Polk County, Florida, 31-year-old paramedic Joshua Colon was arrested and charged with several felonies after admitting to helping a fire rescue captain steal vaccine doses meant for first responders to allegedly give them to his mother, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Less than two weeks earlier, he’d been named the county’s “paramedic of the year.”

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Colon told investigators that the fire rescue captain, Tony Damiano, threatened to tell Colon’s supervisors he was stealing and selling vaccines if Colon didn’t help him secure the doses. Colon’s lawyer said that he had tried to contact the chief of the county Fire Rescue when Damiano approached him but the chief was out of town. Two of the three vaccine doses which were stolen were recovered, but both were unusable.

“Mr. Colon deeply regrets his weakness in failing to alert the Chain of Command to the theft of the vaccine, accepts responsibility for his error in covering up the theft, and in an effort to protect the reputation of his agency, has resigned his position,” Colon’s lawyer told the Tampa Bay TImes in a statement. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have released guidelines on who should get the vaccine and when, but states have their own official guidelines, leading to confusion. The supply chain has also had significant shortcomings—the Trump administration initially claimed 100 million doses would be available by the end of 2020, but nearly at the end of January, the federal government has delivered fewer than 44 million doses. In some cases, the vaccines have expired before they could be used. 

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That’s left fewer people vaccinated than public health officials had hoped, the people still scrambling to get them desperate, and medical professionals facing ethical dilemmas in some cases.

In Houston, Dr. Hasan Gokal administered at least eight vaccine shots to people (including his wife) without authorization. He said he’d worried they would go to waste if he didn’t, as they were set to expire within six hours. He was then fired by the Harris County Public Health and charged with misdemeanor theft by a public servant. 

But Harris County Judge Franklin Bynum dismissed the case, saying the sworn affidavit was “riddled with sloppiness and errors” and that it failed to establish probable cause. Gokal’s lawyer Paul Doyle said he would sue the county for wrongful termination in a statement to ABC 13

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“As I stated publicly last week, an apology by Harris County Public Health and the Harris County District Attorney's Office towards Dr. Gokal and his family will not be enough,” Doyle said. “The agency disparaged this good public servant's name and took away his employment without cause. More must be done by those responsible to make this right.”

Not everyone appears to have the public good in mind for otherwise unused vaccines though. 

In Philadelphia, a nurse says she saw Andrei Doroshin, the 22-year-old CEO of start-up Philly Fighting COVID take unused vaccines with him in his bag on the same day the nonprofit turned elderly residents away for an apparent shortage of doses.

Photos posted on Snapchat that night allegedly showed Doroshin holding a syringe as he prepared to give it to someone in their home, although it’s unclear if he ever administered it or why he planned to, WHYY reported. Philly Fighting COVID did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Philadelphia Magazine reported that Doroshin denied taking vaccines and administering them outside of the clinic. 

Philadelphia’s health department canceled the city’s partnership with Philly Fighting COVID this week, after it found that the group had recently established a for-profit arm and could sell city residents’ personal data, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported

So far, vaccine theft or other interference doesn’t appear to be an issue states are dealing with on a large scale, although officials worried about it before the rollout began. Still, some vaccine sites remain on high alert—a hospital in Wisconsin called the cops and state vaccine officials after three people claiming to be National Guard soldiers said they were assigned to transport vaccines but later said they were at the wrong hospital, the Wauwatosa Patch reported earlier this month. An investigation found that the people were soldiers, and were in fact at the wrong hospital. 

Earlier this month, Chatoohoochee, Florida, two vials of Moderna’s vaccine—roughly 10 doses each—were stolen from the largest mental health hospital in the state. The police report claimed the vials were worth $5,000 each. A Chatoohoochee police official told VICE News in a phone call Wednesday that there were no new updates in the case and it was still an active investigation.