Los Angeles County’s vaccine distribution effort hit a rocky patch this week, as officials administering Moderna shots at pop-up sites allowed some people who are not healthcare workers to skip the line and get immunized weeks or months before they are eligible.
Crowds of desperate people seeking early access to the vaccine led to longer lines and headaches for workers at four sites run by the city of Los Angeles set up to provide doses exclusively for healthcare employees.
But at one South L.A. vaccination site, a Times reporter watched as about 100 people were admitted for immunizations without showing proof that they worked in the healthcare industry. One woman said she received the vaccine at Hansen Dam Recreation Area in Pacoima even after telling workers she was not a healthcare employee.
By Tuesday, officials appeared to have closed that loophole, requiring a photo ID and documentation of a job in the healthcare industry in order to receive a dose of the vaccine.
Many of the people who were turned away were seniors, some with health conditions that place them at a higher risk of getting seriously ill or dying from COVID-19, said Richard Dang, the USC pharmacist overseeing the immunizations at a site in Lincoln Heights.
“It’s been a major issue,” he said. “It’s been tough.”
While the elderly and those with underlying health conditions are expected to be among the first vaccinated, the precise timing of when the doses will be administered is unclear. For some, it could take months.
At a city vaccination site at the Crenshaw Christian Center in South L.A. on Tuesday, a Los Angeles Fire Department employee turned away about half the people in line for not having proof of employment in the healthcare industry: a photo ID plus a work badge, pay stub, professional license or copy of a signed letter from an employer on official letterhead.
“There’s a gross amount of fraud,” the employee told a woman in scrubs, who had proof she was a healthcare worker, as she checked in for her appointment. “We have people throwing street temper tantrums because they’re not getting their way, and it’s worked for them in the past.”
Public health officials began offering the vaccine to healthcare workers at three COVID-19 testing sites last week and added a fourth this week.
Word spread quickly by text and email that no one was verifying healthcare credentials at some locations. By Monday, dozens of people were showing up at the city sites in Pacoima, Lincoln Heights, South L.A. and the San Fernando Recreation Park in hopes of getting an early dose of the vaccine.
Emails intended for healthcare workers were forwarded multiple times among friends and family, allowing anyone who received a registration link to sign up without showing proof of employment. One message shared with The Times included the warning: “Please note that these links are NOT for distribution.”
“Emails, family text groups … word got out,” Dang said.
It’s unclear how many people who were not eligible for the vaccine managed to get it. Those who jumped the line included a retired lawyer, a fashion industry worker and a real estate investor, Times reporters found.
On Monday morning, a crowd of people showed up for appointments in Lincoln Heights who were not eligible to receive the shot, Dang said. That had not been a problem during the site’s first two days of operation, he added.
Staff members at the city’s four vaccination sites are trained to make sure patients are eligible for early immunization under local, state and federal guidelines, said Andrea Garcia, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Every patient is screened using a website that is jointly operated by the county and state, she said.
However, she said in an email, “this is a new operation and we are working together to improve our process and address any issues that arise.”
At the Lincoln Heights clinic on Tuesday, one elderly man who would not give his name refused to leave after a worker turned him away. He repeatedly told her he had a lung condition and a signed note from his doctor that qualified him for an early vaccine. Growing increasingly distressed, he yelled, “You have to help me!”
“I would love to vaccinate you today, but I can’t,” she told him. “I wish I could help.”
He eventually left, disappointed.
At the Crenshaw Christian Center, security was far more lax Monday. A Times reporter watched as one woman received the Moderna vaccine and about 100 others were admitted for shots without being asked for healthcare credentials.
The woman, who asked that her name not be used and said she is a single mother of two who works in the fashion industry, received an email originally sent to the head of a medical supply company that had been forwarded several times.
“Guys use link below and sign up ASAP for vaccine,” wrote one person who forwarded the message. “I just got appointment for my parents.”
The woman said she was initially angry that people were taking advantage but eventually decided that the system was “releasing appointment times” as front-line workers did not show up for their vaccines.
“Once it became a real, tangible option, I couldn’t not take the opportunity to protect myself from severe illness,” she said. “Once I was in line, I felt guilt that it wasn’t my turn but also aware that if it wasn’t me to get this dose, it would be someone else.”
She registered for a vaccine at about 2 p.m. Monday and was given a slot at 3:45 p.m. the same day. The registration page said the vaccinations were for “HEALTH STAFF ONLY,” but the woman said she was not asked to provide proof of her occupation. She uploaded her insurance information, and the site said the insurance company would be billed directly. She was not prompted to pay.
The vaccination site was in a corner of the Crenshaw Christian Center’s expansive parking lot. At 3:15 p.m., when the woman arrived, roughly 100 people stood in line outside the parking lot, and about 100 more fell in behind her. Many were elderly. The reporter did not observe any of the people ahead of the woman being turned away.
After waiting an hour, the woman showed her driver’s license to confirm her appointment. Then she entered one of a few open-sided canopy tents, where nurses wearing employee tags from Curative, a COVID-19 testing startup, were administering vaccines. A nurse told her she was receiving the Moderna vaccine and would get an email to schedule the second dose. Then she was given the shot.
Parked amid the tents was a large van emblazoned with the Curative logo, its back doors open, revealing a stock of supplies. Next to it was a Los Angeles Fire Department ambulance in which two paramedics sat filling syringes with vaccine. A pile of what appeared to be several dozen filled syringes lay on the gurney between them.
By the time the woman left, a man in an LAFD uniform was standing at the front of the line, requiring people to show proof they were health workers. He held a crumpled notice about the vaccination effort that listed the acceptable types of proof of profession. He started turning people away; of 20 people observed, only a handful were allowed in.
At Hansen Dam in Pacoima, a single line of cars snaked for about a mile outside the site as people waited for both testing and vaccines.
Eleanor Mizrahi, 76, showed up Tuesday after making a vaccine appointment through the online public health portal. She said her daughter, a healthcare worker, forwarded her an email with links to sign up. When Mizrahi registered, she was asked whether she worked in healthcare and clicked “no” but was still able to get an appointment.
“I thought, ‘Maybe they’re being liberal about it.’ I did have a degree of trepidation about doing it, because I certainly don’t want to take anything away from someone who needs it,” she said. “But my husband and I are both cancer survivors. We recently found out my immune system is quite compromised.”
But when Mizrahi and her husband checked in for their appointments, a site worker turned them away because they did not qualify.
“We’re not angry, and we’re not upset,” she said. “I just think they need to readjust the website to not allow you to go through if you’re not on the correct tier. That was the error that they made.”
If Mizrahi had come a day earlier, she might have been successful. Her friend, an 83-year-old retired lawyer who did not want to be named, got the vaccine at the same site after signing up through the public health portal.
The friend, who said she has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said she was asked twice — once during online registration and again in person at the site — whether she was a healthcare worker and said “no” both times. At the site, she said, she told workers about her age and condition, and they gave her the Moderna vaccine.
“I did not say anything that was untrue, and I didn’t hold myself out as anything that I wasn’t,” she said. “I was simply an old lady with a breathing disorder, and they said, ‘OK, we’ll shoot you up!'”
Times staff photographer Al Seib contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.