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The ethics of vaccine line jumping


As I was composing this post I got a text letting me know that Colorado is opening up COVID vaccine eligibility to everybody 16 and older this Friday, so what follows is about to be irrelevant in my state, but remains relevant in other places.

I want to explore a couple of questions here:

(1) The ethics of getting vaccinated when you’re not technically eligible to receive the vaccine (I’m not including things like managing to get a vaccine by showing up somewhere at the end of the day on an informal walk-in basis, when otherwise the dose in question would be thrown out. I take it every halfway reasonable person agrees that’s OK).

(2) The policy question that turns in part on the practicalities involved in the answer to (1).

My understanding is that in most places in the USA vaccine eligibility at this point is being determined on pretty much an honor system. I’ve been told that, under the federal vaccine distribution system, pharmacies and the like aren’t even allowed to inquire whether people who sign up are eligible, assuming they’re adults. Thus if people claim to belong to a category that renders them eligible, they can get the vaccine.

It seems to me that the ethics of this are at least a little complicated. Obviously lying is bad, but what if a person believes sincerely, and at least arguably correctly, ethically speaking, that he or she has exigent circumstances that justify getting the vaccine now, such as for example a seriously ill parent that they haven’t been able to visit in more than a year?

Given that just about everywhere now at least half or more of all adults are technically eligible to get the vaccine, and that this number is going to rise rapidly in the next few weeks to soon encompass the whole population, are there circumstances in which line jumping via jesuitical mental reservation or what have you is justified? Surely there are some, but of course the problem is that people tend to be overly generous in evaluating their own situations in this regard.

(2) Another problem is that once it becomes widely known that line jumping is easy to do, it will become prevalent enough that it probably just makes sense to drop all restrictions on adults signing up to get the vaccine. We may be reaching that point rapidly in many places.

In any case, with 146 million doses already administered in the US, and the rolling seven-day average having climbed now to 2.76 million doses per day, the vaccination campaign is well on the road to being one of the greatest triumphs of public health in the nation’s history. The critical question is how to best handle the situation over the next two to three months, since if the distribution continues to go as smoothly as it has every adult who wanted to be fully vaccinated should have been able to be so by the end of that period — which fortunately means that the ethical question posed by this post will soon be moot.

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