‘Even for the Rich, It’s Hard to Access’

America’s wealthiest are discovering the vaccine is one of the few things money can’t buy.

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photos Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photos Getty Images

If Georgina* could pay $10,000 to get the vaccine tomorrow, she would do it in a heartbeat. “I’ve always had this thing, and I know it sounds so entitled and bitchy, where I’m like, Stand in line for something, are you crazy? Nobody who’s a real New Yorker waits for anything,” says the businesswoman, speaking on the phone from her Upper East Side home. Georgina has never had trouble finding her way through seemingly closed doors — from sold-out showings of Hamilton to SNL afterparties and the most exclusive clubs and restaurants. “It’s one of those things where you’re just chatting with people and suddenly someone’s like, Here, and hands you tickets.” But when it comes to the COVID vaccine, her usual tactics have fallen short. Everything was booked solid for months when she tried getting an appointment online, and for once, nobody in her vast network seemed to know how to sneak her to the front of the line. “I know a lot of connected people,” she says. “But I can’t figure out which lake to go fishing in to get it.”

Georgina, who is in her mid-60s, is technically eligible for the vaccine in New York, but statewide shortages mean that, as Governor Cuomo recently put it, “10 million New Yorkers are chasing 300,000 vaccines every week” and even those who meet the eligibility requirements have struggled. For Americans like Georgina, who are used to leveraging their money and privilege to find shortcuts, not being able to get the vaccine easily and immediately feels akin to a personal affront. “It almost reminds me of communist rule,” she says. “Like, who is controlling this? What’s really going on here?”

For those looking to dine out on stories about the one percent attempting to beat the system, there have certainly been some juicy ones: the cartoon-villain Canadian casino owner and his wife who were arrested after chartering a jet to be vaccinated in a remote Indigenous community; the 22-year-old Philadelphia start-up owner who launched the “Fyre Fest” of vaccine rollouts and reportedly took doses home with him; and the celebrity spin instructor who got herself classified as an educator. In a pandemic characterized by inequality, it makes sense that the vaccine rollout would be no different, and these stories have served as a satisfying form of confirmation bias. But for those who cater to the one percent, the surprise hasn’t been the sensationalist stories of cheaters and line cutters but how difficult it has been for most people to buy their way to the front. “The process has been both extremely democratic and extremely bungled,” someone who works at a high-end medical concierge service told me. “It’s actually one of the rare instances when the rich can’t cut the line. And they can always cut the line.”

Many of the well-connected people I spoke to expressed surprise over how little they had heard about vaccine loopholes or black markets. I spoke to one tech CEO who said that, while he had heard “rumors” of a group of people in the Hamptons who have a doctor on call giving them the vaccine, nobody in his circles has been able to access it. “I know all the people in my sort of social circle out there, and I definitely haven’t heard anyone say ‘Hey, wanna get in on this thing? We’re all doing it.’” Another person with ties high up in the tech and entertainment worlds says it hasn’t filtered into his crowd, either. “Honestly, I’m quite surprised that it hasn’t percolated into our sphere yet,” he says. “It’s such a black market that, even for the rich, it’s hard to access.”

For now, the biggest loophole for those seeking to parlay their privilege into a vaccine appointment may be to hop on a plane. Israeli expats of all ages have been flying home to take part in their country’s lightning-fast vaccine rollout, and in the United Arab Emirates, where vaccination is happening almost as fast, a source in the Abu Dhabi tourism industry told me it is considering rolling out special packages for tourists in the next few months. Yet even in the rarefield world of vaccine tourism, demand is far outpacing supply.

Stuart McNeill runs a London-based luxury concierge service called Knightsbridge Circle. He made headlines last month after he announced that he would be flying select members — those over 65 or with preexisting conditions — to Dubai to receive the first jab of the COVID vaccine. (Membership alone costs £25,000, before travel expenses.) McNeill says he has received inquiries from tens of thousands of people in places as far away as Myanmar, Australia, and Finland, but he has the resources to arrange trips for only 100 clients. “We’ve had people say, ‘I’ll pay you whatever it takes. I’ll give you my life savings if you do this for me.’ But we’re totally full,” McNeill says. “I’ve worked in travel and concierge for almost 20 years, and money can buy most things but this has been a reality shock for a lot of people.”

One Canadian woman wintering in Dubai said that while she and her over-65 husband have access to the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, her friends have warned her against it because of a shortage of clinical data. Instead, they have been asking around about a Pfizer or Moderna jab, both of which are much harder to come by in Dubai. (McNeill says many of his clients specify which “name brand” vaccine they want access to.) “We’ve asked the GM of our hotel, and he’s trying to get it for us,” the Canadian woman says. “We’ve plunked an enormous amount of money into the country; surely they can make an exception or something.”

In the States, affluent North and South Americans have converged on Florida, which pledged early on to vaccinate anyone over 65, regardless of state or country residency. Data shows that over 40,000 out-of-state residents  — including Argentine lawyers, Mexican TV hosts, and flocks of Canadian snowbirds — have received vaccines in the Sunshine State since December. After a wave of outcry, Florida governor Ron DeSantis responded by requiring people to show proof of state residency as a way to crack down on vaccine tourism. Yet this hasn’t stopped the flights of out-of-towners who already have second homes there or are happy to pay for a couple of months’ rental to try and meet the requirement — while putting up further boundaries for the unhoused, the undocumented, and migrant workers, who may struggle to show proof of residency. “This weekend, coincidently, ten people I know from Toronto who are homeowners or apartment renters here in Florida are flying down,” another wealthy Canadian woman in her late 70s told me a few weeks ago from her home in Florida, where she lives half the year. “I have only heard thirdhand of someone who paid someone for a shot, but frankly, I don’t believe it. Everyone sees at least three people by the time they actually get vaccinated, so who would you bribe? A website for an appointment? I just don’t know.”

Data from around the country shows that people who have been vaccinated come disproportionately from white affluent neighborhoods despite the ongoing attempts to make distribution more equitable. According to Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Health and Public Policy, the fact that the vaccines were initially distributed via traditional health-care sites like hospitals — instead of, say, at stadiums, churches, and community centers — meant the system was necessarily going to be unequal because of the country’s already existing discrepancies in health-care access. Much of the queue jumping is less the result of overt rule breaking than of a chaotic free-for-all sign-up process, which benefits those with resources. The difficulty of snagging an appointment over the phone or online means you need time, skills, and know-how to get one, and things like reliable car access and good internet service can all help give people a leg up. In Dallas, when the sign-up website for an inoculation site in a predominantly Black and Latino community went live, the link was passed around quickly among the white and wealthy (the result was “a huge stampede of people from the suburbs who had reliable cars,” according to a local judge quoted in the New York Times). Right now, what we have is a first-serve, “come and get it,” vaccine, says Dr. Denis Nash, a CUNY epidemiology professor and former city health official. “This vaccine program started in the context of a pandemic that has exacted really devastating inequities by race, ethnicity, occupation, geography. For mass vaccination to be rolled out basically blind to the existing inequities, that to me is a huge failure.”

In late January, The City reported that vaccines at a distribution center in Washington Heights — which was itself set up to combat this kind of inequity — were being monopolized by people who had driven in from outside the area, while residents of the predominantly low-income Latino neighborhood itself struggled to get them. There were reportedly no Spanish-speaking volunteers on-site. “I’ve never seen so many white people in Washington Heights,” said one of the volunteer doctors there on Twitter.

“I thought about going to Washington Heights, but as soon as that story broke, suddenly it was shut down, and now you have to take a rent payment that shows the address and a utility bill,” says Georgina. “So next time I hear it’s available in, I don’t know, Staten Island, am I gonna go? The viral counts are so high, and I don’t know my way around. But maybe I’d hire a driver, and I would just, like, take my chances.”

Meanwhile, as convoluted eligibility requirements, piecemeal distribution, and bungled rollouts have led to thousands of unused doses going to waste, some people have been able to beat the system simply by hanging out around a vaccination site or getting a surprise call from a doctor friend. “It reminds me of going to a Stones concert in the late ’70s or something, where the only way you could get it in was if you were in the business or you were really rich,” said one New Yorker with a number of South American friends who got vaccinated in Florida. “But you could also put in a lot of time, do a lot of research, and stand in long lines, and, hey, maybe you’d meet somebody who’s related to a bouncer who happened to be working that night.”

According to Dr. Lee, poor planning and coordination at the federal and state levels means that even those ostensibly in charge of the vaccine rollout often don’t have a clear sense of what’s going on. The rich and powerful may be calling contacts looking for a backdoor entrance, but the people on the other end of the phone are often just as confused. “Planning wasn’t very transparent, and it’s still not clearly identified where the bottlenecks are. And there are multiple bottlenecks throughout,” he says. “You actually need a system to track where everything’s going and to show where the problems are actually occurring. And we don’t have that. It’s a line-of-sight problem. It’s like running onto the football field, you’re the coach, and not only is there no clear plan or game plan or strategy, you can’t even see where your opponents are on the field. You have to see where everyone’s positioned and what’s exactly happening; otherwise, how are you going to bring solutions?”

Lee thinks the frequent trend stories about wealthy line skippers are missing the point.  “When you hear these stories of individual people — you know, the Soul Cycle person — like, okay, well, that makes good news,” he says. “But like, how frequently is that actually occurring?” Still, if elites can’t pay to Instacart a shot of Pfizer or Moderna to their house just yet, that’s likely to change once vaccines are more widely distributed, particularly as more private clinics start getting access.

Georgina, meanwhile, is considering flying down to Florida to get a jab. Although she doesn’t have a home there, she has heard from friends that, even with the new eligibility requirements, it’s still possible to find loopholes if you work hard enough. But she’s annoyed that her beloved New York City — a place she has always viewed as being “like magic” for the way doors slide open in front of her — has left her no recourse. “I’m resourceful enough to figure out everything. And I’m like, How could there be nothing?” she says, her voice brimming with outrage. “I just sort of thought this thing would be easier.”

*Some names have been changed.

‘Even for the Rich, It’s Hard to Access’