As newly eligible senior citizens in Washington state are lining up to receive coronavirus vaccines, more than one hospital in the Seattle area has come under fire this week for providing well-connected individuals, including donors, with exclusive and expedited access to shots on an invitation-only basis—a practice that critics have called unjust and that Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan condemned on Friday.
"Put their name on the plaque, send them a thank-you note, give them tickets to a Mariners game—that's fine. But don't move them to the front of the line in a life-or-death situation."
That is what one "horrified" hospital donor who received—and rejected—an invitation to a special-access Covid-19 vaccine clinic at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett told The Seattle Times.
"I feel very strongly that we have a very bad equity issue here."
—Teresita Batayola, International Community Health Services
According to an email obtained by the Times, Providence has recently offered appointments to donors, board members, and fundraising campaign volunteers—granting them early access to inoculation even as "the hospital was not providing vaccine access to the general public."
What the Times called "an appearance of favoritism" sparked outrage as well as concerns about how the inequitable distribution of vaccines could magnify prevailing class and racial inequalities, thereby worsening the pandemic's already disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable members of society.
"As many seniors, especially those in marginalized communities, struggle to navigate a disorganized landscape of sign-ups and hotlines for shots," the Times reported Friday, "these exclusive opportunities illustrate concerns about unequal access to a taxpayer-funded vaccine that offers potentially lifesaving protection."
Teresita Batayola, CEO of International Community Health Services, which serves immigrant households, told the newspaper that "learning about special access to vaccines was like a 'gut punch.'"
"Privilege has given access to some groups of people," Batayola said, while others in some of the hardest-hit communities "have virtually no access" to vaccines.
Providence, which emailed its VIPs last week and again on Monday, is not the only hospital in the Puget Sound region to face criticism for "quietly giving people of influence... special access to vaccines," the newspaper noted. In fact, "special-access vaccine appointments first drew a rebuke from Gov. Jay Inslee (D) on Tuesday, when he chastised Overlake Medical Center for launching a program directing donors, board members, retirees, and volunteers to reserved appointments."
As the Times reported earlier this week:
Last Friday, Molly Stearns, chief development officer at Overlake Medical Center & Clinics, emailed about 110 donors who gave more than $10,000 to the Eastside hospital system, informing them that highly coveted vaccine slots were available.
"Dear Overlake major donors…" the email read. "We're pleased to share that we have 500 new open appointments in the Overlake Covid-19 vaccine clinic, beginning this afternoon and tomorrow (Saturday, Jan. 23) and next week."
The email gave the donors an access code to register for appointments "by invite" only. Last week, the public-facing Overlake registration site was fully booked through March.
Overlake shut down online access to the invite-only clinic after being contacted by one of Inslee's staff members, the newspaper reported. Administrators of the hospital located in Bellevue described the invitation, which they say was limited to individuals eligible for inoculation under current state policy, as "a quick-fix solution after the hospital's scheduling system failed."
Amid an influx of traffic, and "in an effort to fill as many slots as possible," Overlake officials told the Times that they "simply contacted people whose emails were on hand, including some patients, retirees, major donors, and board members."
"We're under pressure to vaccinate people who are eligible and increase capacity," said Tom DeBord, the medical center's COO. "In hindsight, we could certainly look back and say this wasn't the best way to do it."
In a statement released Wednesday, hospital president and CEO J. Michael Marsh said:
Recently, in an effort to notify people of additional, immediate-term vaccine appointments that had become available, we sent emails to approximately 4,000 members of the Overlake community, including volunteers, retired nurses and physicians, all employees, and about 100 donors from our Foundation database.
We recognize we made a mistake by including a subset of our donors and by not adopting a broader outreach strategy to fill these appointments, and we apologize.
Following Inslee's rebuke of Overlake, the Times noted, Providence officials "proactively reported" their invite-only vaccine clinic to the governor, assuring him "the practice would not continue or happen again."
Prior to that, the Providence General Foundation's chief philanthropy officer Lori Kloes had on January 19 emailed the "valued friends of Providence, board members, and campaign volunteers," to invite them to a special vaccine clinic. According to the Times, "Membership to the Friends of Providence Donor Society begins with a minimum of $10,000 in cumulative gifts to the foundation. The group includes owners of auto dealerships and prominent Everett-area philanthropists."
In a statement, Providence leaders said that "in retrospect we understand that in our haste to vaccinate people quickly—including certain members of our hospital community—we created the impression that some people are able to use their access to unfairly get a vaccination appointment."
Batayola, of International Community Health Services, told the Times: "I feel very strongly that we have a very bad equity issue here."
According to the newspaper:
Low-income seniors who lack access to computers or transportation have struggled to find doses.
William Harmon, a 70-year-old resident of a low-income senior housing program above a homeless service center in Seattle, said he's been unable to find an appointment. Operation Nightwatch, which houses the program, has experienced an outbreak in the building and two deaths.
"I tried and every place I called they didn't have it," said Harmon, who has a history of heart problems. "So I figured I'd wait until it gets a little easier."
Arthur Caplan, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine, told the Times that "the rich got advantages in the healthcare system long before Covid, but when we're in a plague you expect everybody to follow the rules."
Following the Seattle newspaper's reporting this week, Durkan, the city's mayor, on Friday called on the Washington State Department of Health to disallow vaccine line-cutting by hospital donors, demanding instead that more doses be allocated to community health clinics serving predominantly low-income households of color.
This story has been updated to reflect Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan's criticism of area hospitals' preferential treatment of donors and other well-connected individuals.