Amber Alirahi has witnessed the effects of the pandemic firsthand. The Liberal Studies first-year lost a loved one due to COVID-19 in early May of 2020. She witnessed her sister, a nurse caring for patients infected with the virus, return home in tears after patients died. Alirahi is also immunocompromised. Despite heading a family of first responders and immunocompromised individuals, Alirahi’s parents weren’t able to find vaccine appointments until this March.
After the toll that the pandemic has taken on Alirahi, she now factors compliance with public health guidelines into whether she maintains friendships with fellow NYU students. She has put multiple friendships on hold.
“I’m happy that my friends are getting vaccinated, and it is most definitely a major step towards eradicating COVID-19 in the United States,” Alirahi said, regarding the expansion of COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to all New York residents aged 16 and over. “But some of them took routes that may have disadvantaged others or been only with bad intentions. It is one of the hardest parts about making friends at NYU this year — it happens so often.”
Before Alirahi received her first dose of the Moderna vaccine on March 25, three of her friends living in residence halls had already been vaccinated. Two of them cited the congregate living facilities loophole, according to Alirahi, while the other potentially bent the truth to say they have an underlying health condition.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a law to criminalize vaccine providers administering shots to ineligible people attempting to skip ahead in line, though critics said this would lead to wasted vaccine doses. Although CDC guidelines include dorms as congregate living facilities, the New York City government excluded residence halls in their guidelines, narrowing the definition to include nursing homes, homeless shelters and domestic abuse shelters. Yet, ineligible students living in university residence halls have been telling vaccine providers they live in congregate housing in order to qualify for the vaccine, as WSN previously reported.
Alirahi actively searched for vaccine appointments for two months before asking one of her vaccinated friends, another LS first-year, for advice. They told her that they had seen a TikTok of Walgreens giving out vaccine doses leftover from cancelled appointments. They decided to call the pharmacy, which instructed them to indicate that they live in a congregate living setting to meet the criteria. By the time Alirahi could make an appointment, she said, the friend had already told their classmates about the loophole — regardless of their actual eligibility — and the appointments were all filled.
“The opportunity I could have had was shut,” Alirahi said. By then, Walgreens had updated their website to remove congregate living and underlying health conditions as valid criteria. “It bothered me because they took away vaccines from people who needed them. I think they know that what [they were] doing in getting other people vaccinated wasn’t the best, but they had good intentions.”
Dr. Arthur Caplan, the founding head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine, previously told WSN he had heard of ineligible individuals lying about living in congregate settings, being essential workers, having asthma or smoking in order to get vaccinated early.
“When people hear that something is scarce and important, all of a sudden, they want it,” Caplan said. “Lying isn’t right when you’re pushing other people aside. It’s not okay to cut the line when you’re not eligible, but it’s fine to pick up surplus vaccines.”
After learning that her friend had cut the vaccine line, Alirahi severed most of her ties with them. She considers them no more than an acquaintance. They had just started getting close. Another of Alirahi’s friends, a Stern first-year, booked an appointment at a Rite-Aid at the beginning of March. Alirahi occasionally talks to them.
“I found out when I told them that I was looking for the vaccine, and they never originally mentioned anything about it to me,” Alirahi said. “They said, ‘Oh, you should be able to find one,’ since their friends also got vaccinated.”
According to Dr. Alison Bateman-House, an assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at Grossman, the problem of line cutting lies in prioritizing certain groups over others.
“Frontline healthcare workers were the easy tip of the iceberg to categorize, but after that, everything gets harder,” Bateman-House said. “I understand the appeal of having broad categories, but the guidelines were a middle position that was not so clear.”
Alirahi eventually found an appointment at a CVS after days and days of constant searching. One of her closest friends, a CAS first-year, asked how she had secured the appointment. That friend was vaccinated at another CVS location the very next day.
“They knew that they could get it, and so they did,” Alirahi said. “It wasn’t that they needed it, and there’s still tension on my end where I worry what their intentions were.”
Alirahi wondered if she was the only one offended by her friends cutting teachers, essential workers and others eligible for the vaccine. According to Bateman-House and Caplan, taking advantage of loopholes is not just an NYU phenomenon and could have been prevented with penalties.
Bateman-House said terms like “congregate housing” could have been avoided in guidelines. Both Caplan and her agreed it would be impossible to prevent people from exploiting the system, especially after seeing widespread examples of cheating.
“The simplest thing that was never done was to put penalties in place for not following the rules,” Caplan said. “It’s all voluntary and there are no consequences if you cheat. That’s not a good way to get compliance.”
Bateman-House, however, is cautious about condemning young adults who appear to cut the line.
“People’s lives are complex, and they know more about what’s happening in their lives compared to a policy,” Bateman-House said. “I do think we should have done a better job within the system to show proof that you are in one of the categories, such as a congregate living facility, instead of the honor system. People took advantage of it.”
Although Alirahi has distanced herself from the friends who took advantage of loopholes and cut the vaccine line, she still sees anyone who gets vaccinated — regardless of eligibility — as a step closer to herd immunity.
“Getting more and more people to get vaccinated is important, and it’s better that people want the vaccine than being anti-vaccination,” Alirahi said. “But this all shows how the system does not always prioritize who really needs it at times.”
Email Rachel Cohen at [email protected]