Under her state’s guidelines, Brittany Bennett got her first dose of the coronavirus vaccine on March 5.
The postdoctoral molecular biology researcher at the University of Southern California recently became eligible because she works at a school. She jumped at the opportunity.
But several days after her first shot, she continues to have mixed feelings. Although she goes into a lab with other people — one of whom has already gotten the coronavirus — she can work from home on many days.
The Walgreens she was assigned to was in Boyle Heights, a historically Mexican American enclave of Los Angeles, not too far from campus. She says she was very conscious of her race and socioeconomic status, which underscored her existing concerns about the inequity of vaccine distribution.
“Here I am, an upper-middle-class White woman getting the vaccine in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood,” said Bennett, 39.
“I’m just sitting there … realizing I’m very much part of this dynamic where middle-class White people are getting the vaccine and people of color are not,” she said.
She says she also has elderly relatives in their 80s in Washington who got the vaccine at the same time she did. “I feel guilty about people who have been eligible longer than I have, and I’m still getting it at the same time they are,” she said.
Bennett is among the 21 percent of the U.S. population who has been vaccinated with at least one dose. Amid a staggered and confusing vaccine rollout, many like Bennett feel at odds with what should be giving them a sight of relief.
“It is an awkward situation at best, and at worst it can be a great source of moral distress for people,” said Ruth Faden, a professor of biomedical ethics and the founding director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.
In the high-stakes world of coronavirus vaccines, there are two extremes, Faden said. There are those who will go to any lengths to get a vaccine, regardless of the moral implications. On the other end are those willing to give up the chance at a vaccine despite their own need, Faden said. The reality, however, is that the inclinations of most people fall in between these two extremes.
Part of the problem is varying approaches throughout the country, she said.
“The fact that the rules are different, the priority groups are ordered differently in different parts of the country, has undermined the ethical justifiability for the priority groups in the first place,” she said.
As a natural response to the convoluted messaging, we feel on shaky moral ground.
“It starts to introduce a level of questioning: ‘What confidence should I have that the rules are fair? Even if I’m technically eligible, elsewhere I wouldn’t be.’ It adds to the undermining of people’s confidence,” she said.
At the end of the day, she said, if you’re eligible under the rules of where you live, get the vaccine.
“I don’t think you should feel guilty about it,” Faden said.
There are also psychological factors that play into our discomfort with any kind of covid-19 privilege: a sense of survivor’s guilt, according to psychiatrist and University of Maryland Medical School professor Kim Gordon.
“In general, getting the coronavirus vaccine is great and anyone able to get it early shouldn’t be judged for that privilege. It’s like having drinking water — you need it to survive and feeling guilty about having clean water to drink is absurd. Feeling passionate that all people should have clean water is humane.”
Sandy Triplett owns a small restaurant in Mendocino, Calif. Weeks after getting her Pfizer shots with nine of her employees, she still struggles with accepting that she was worth it. Her friend’s husband just had a bone-marrow transplant, so she is home with him as he is working on rebuilding his immunity.
“She’s not in any tier to get, why [do] I?” Triplett said.
For people like Triplett, who are eligible but worry others are more worthy, Faden points out that there are some downsides to not getting the vaccine when it’s your turn.
“It could look like you are refusing or declining the vaccine. We’re really trying to build a sense of confidence in the vaccine. The more people who accept it when they are offered it, the better for the people who are not so sure they want to get the vaccine,” she said.
There’s also no guarantee that if you don’t take the vaccine, it will go to someone you think is more worthy.
Instead of feeling badly, “use that good heart of yours to help other people sign up for the vaccine who are overwhelmed by the system or have transportation issues. Take the beginnings of your guilt and do a good deed. It’s a win-win for everybody,” Faden said.
Gordon seconds putting your conflicted feelings to work.
“If you feel guilty, volunteer in communities who need it the most. Become a vaccinator, volunteer to serve as a substitute teacher, do something. Guilt has no real value if it isn’t followed up by a responsibility to help those in need,” she said.
Gordon also reinforced that the vaccinated cannot be irresponsible.
“We are in a pandemic, so wearing a mask, washing your hands and social distancing isn’t up for debate. If you have the vaccine and you are interacting with those who don’t yet have the vaccine, don’t be selfish. You can still give them the virus, even if you have no symptoms or don’t get sick yourself,” she said.
If you are given the chance to take a vaccine that would otherwise expire, Faden was very clear.
“Rules number one, two and three: You never throw away a vaccine. Never, ever, ever, ever. Each dose is precious, each dose could keep somebody out of the hospital and save someone’s life. There’s no way to ethically justify that,” she said.
But if there are elderly people, essential workers or people with preexisting issues on-site, you still shouldn’t be prioritized if you’re young and healthy, even if you’ve waited all day, Faden said.
“This is not a concert.”