Celebrities, CEOs, tech moguls, VC bros, and other exorbitantly wealthy people can buy their way out of being exposed to COVID-19. Most can work from home, if they even need to work at all. They can pay someone else to take care of basic tasks, like grocery shopping or picking up prescriptions, that would put them in close contact with strangers. There's a case to be made that they should be the last in line to receive a COVID vaccine—but many are doing everything they can to cut right to the front.
Dr. Ehsan Ali, who runs a concierge medical service in Beverly Hills that counts stars like Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande as clients, told the Los Angeles Times he gets "hundreds of calls every single day" from patients asking to get vaccinated. The same is happening in New York, where boutique medical providers have been bombarded by requests from their high-profile clientele who want to jump the line, according to the New York Times. But they're all being told the same thing: No.
Under federal and state guidelines, vaccines are being administered to the most at-risk individuals in America first, beginning with frontline healthcare workers and those in long-term care facilities. Any doctor who strays from those guidelines—by, for instance, giving a vaccine to a celebrity client who keeps them on retainer for $25,000 a year—would face steep penalties. In California, you could lose your medical license. In New York, you could be fined up to $1 million, and potentially face criminal charges.
That means that the rich and famous have been forced to wait for a vaccine like the rest of us—for now, at least. As more doses become available and the country enters later phases of distribution, the wealthy and well-connected are uniquely positioned to get their hands on a vial.
It's almost impossible for a state to keep tabs on every individual dose of the vaccine distributed to its hospitals. Ethics watchdogs are concerned that some might go missing in what looks like a clerical error—but is actually an example of what Vox's Theodore Schleifer calls the "favor trade" at work.
"The CEO of a major hospital is going to know some of these wealthy people, or know someone who is going to use their influence to ask for a favor,” Taryn Vian, a professor at the University of San Francisco who studies corruption in medicine, told Vox. “You’re going to want to help them. So we really need to rely on systems in place that don’t allow for one person to make that kind of decision.”
As of now, those systems don't meaningfully exist. It's up to individual medical providers to follow the rules when it comes to vaccine distribution, and state governments don't have enough resources to closely monitor how every single dose gets doled out. If one "missing" vial is quietly shuffled to a celebrity, there's little chance the public would ever find out about it.
Additionally, once the country enters phase 1c, "other essential workers"—defined by the CDC as those in transportation, logistics, food service, housing construction, finance, information technology, communications, energy, law, media, public safety, and public health—will be cleared to receive a vaccine. Those are broad, vague categories; there's a chance that millionaires and billionaires who are far from "essential" could willfully misrepresent themselves as such. The food service employees meant to receive a vaccine in phase 1c are, ostensibly, folks like waiters, bartenders, and delivery drivers. But CEOs of companies like FreshDirect and high-ranking executives at Sysco could make the case that because they're "essential" to the operation of their food-service businesses, they need to be vaccinated. The same could apply to the world of finance: While the CDC probably intended for employees like bank tellers to receive the vaccine, bigwigs at investment firms, who can work from home, might be able to secure a dose without technically breaking the rules.
"They’re rationalizing because they’re a leader of a company that has millions or thousands of employees," Vian told Vox. "They say, ‘I’m essential to this company. And therefore I’m holding up the economy—and the economy is really in danger right now. So I’m doing a good thing by making sure that I don’t get sick because I’m leading these people.’”
It seems like high-profile, high-net worth Americans haven't been able to exploit these loopholes on a large scale yet. But a handful have managed. At a hospital in Rhode Island, board members, trustees, and other high-ranking executives who don't actually see patients allegedly received inoculations well before they should have. In Florida, non-residents over 65 are eligible to receive the vaccine, and the wealthy have pounced on the opportunity by flying in for what essentially amount to vaccine vacations.
There are safeguards in place to keep America's one percent from getting early access to a vaccine by outright breaking the rules. But there's not much stopping the rich and famous from bending them.
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