A worker gives directions as motorists wait in lines to get the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine in a parking lot at Dodger Stadium, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, in Los Angeles.

Mass Vaccine Sites Aren’t for the Masses

By Chloe Reichel

Turns out, one of the unspoken eligibility requirements for COVID-19 vaccination is a car. 

At least, it was for Pradeep Niroula, a researcher based in College Park, Md. Last week, Niroula was turned away from his scheduled appointment at a mass vaccination site in Maryland for arriving on foot. 

A staffer at the site told him, “If you can’t get a car, you will have to leave and reschedule,” Niroula recounts. This came as a surprise — nowhere in the registration information did it specify that a car was required, Niroula says. 

And why should it be? There’s nothing about a car that readily facilitates vaccine administration.

Nevertheless, social media reports confirm that this unspoken, unjustifiable requirement is affecting individuals across the country. And these reports underrepresent the issue, as they fail to capture those who do not even attempt to get vaccinated due to the barrier posed by transportation access.  

Not wanting to miss the opportunity, and having already traveled to the site, Niroula scrambled to find a rideshare and have the driver take him through the process. Niroula explains that it was challenging to locate a ride in such an isolated spot. It was quite clearly an unwelcome assignment for the driver, he adds.

And it was a pricey endeavor — the cost came to nearly $90. Nevertheless, Niroula counts himself among the lucky who can afford this option, both in terms of cost and time off from work. “All I had to do was reschedule a couple of Zoom calls. It’s not as simple as that for most people,” Niroula says.

As Niroula points out, many are not so lucky. Society has bifurcated into the COVID haves and the COVID have-nots. The people who can work comfortably from home, and the people who deliver their groceries. The people who can take time off of work to get tested for COVID, or to quarantine, and the people who can’t afford to do so, or who don’t have the option. The people who can finagle access to the vaccine, and the people who are eligible but locked out from appointments. 

The forces driving the crises of our time — privilege and individualism — undergird not only the devastation wrought by COVID-19, but also domestic and global inequality, and climate change (the irony is not lost that those with personal vehicles are rewarded in our vaccination distribution scheme).  

Vaccine distribution has become a race that the tech-savvy, the young, and the well-off are winning. This is not equity. And this is setting aside the fact that these “mass” vaccination sites are often not easily accessible to the masses — located in isolated areas, which are typically not served by public transit. 

To date, much of the conversation around COVID-19 vaccination has rightly focused on eligibility. How can we ensure that vaccine allocation is prioritized in a way that meaningfully responds to the differential risk of various groups in our society? 

But with COVID-19 vaccine eligibility rapidly expanding, the most pressing issue with respect to distribution has now shifted to access. Eligibility, after all, is meaningless without accessibility.

That access to the vaccine is predicated on certain indicators of socioeconomic status (access to Internet, access to vehicles) is not surprising, but is nevertheless alarming. But it’s not too late to change course. 

COVID-19 infections are increasing at an alarming pace in the U.S. Experts predict we are on the precipice of a fourth surge. We should be doing everything we can to get vaccines into arms as quickly as possible. Ideally, this would involve meeting people where they are. But when people are meeting the vaccine where it is, the least we can do is not turn them away.

Chloe Reichel

Chloe Reichel is the Petrie-Flom Center’s Communications Associate. She serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Bill of Health blog and supports the Center's broader communications efforts.

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