Concerned about skipping the line? Students grapple with the ethical dilemmas of early vaccination

April 11, 2021, 10:42 p.m.

Some students were granted pseudonyms due to fear of retribution for receiving vaccines while ineligible. “Taylor” and “Alex” are pseudonyms. 

A number of Stanford students who returned to campus have already received COVID-19 vaccinations, raising ethical concerns among their peers. Some have taken advantage of ambiguous guidelines, while others have lied in order to gain eligibility.

“I am quite surprised at how many students have been vaccinated, given very few of those students met the restrictions,” said Felix Wang ’21, M.S. ’22, who knew several people who were vaccinated early.

Currently, individuals 50 years of age or older, those working in at-risk sectors like education and healthcare or individuals with comorbidities regardless of age are eligible, according to state guidelines. Individuals living in high-risk congregate settings like assisted living facilities are also given priority.

Several students, including Stanford senior Taylor, disregarded these and received vaccines despite not meeting state qualifications.

“I decided to get vaccinated early because a lot of my friends were doing it,” said Taylor, who is currently residing on campus. “There was just a lot of availability for the vaccine in the time that we were looking.” 

Taylor was vaccinated by stating that they worked in education, which qualifies as at-risk, despite not being employed by the University. When asked about the ethics of early vaccination in the student population, professor of medicine Dean Winslow said, ”In general terms, I don’t think it’s good to lie or misrepresent yourself.” 

Another senior, Alex, who is currently on campus, wrote that they were able to get vaccinated by stating that they lived in a high-risk congregate setting, though it is unclear as to whether student dormitories qualify as high-risk. They originally chose not to get vaccinated because they did not want to skip the line but changed their mind when they learned some vaccine providers give vaccines to individuals living in congregate settings.

This is a moral grey area for some. California’s definition of high-risk congregate settings does not include student living facilities. On the other hand, the CDC’s definition does. When asked whether student living facilities meet guidelines for congregate living vaccination eligibility, University spokesperson E.J. Miranda restated the state guidelines. 

Other students were vaccinated under relatively ambiguous circumstances. For example, many graduate TAs and other student employees were vaccinated under the “education” category, although some work entirely remotely and are not at occupational risk of contracting COVID-19.

Recent guidance from Stanford HealthAlerts stated that “individuals who are working 100% remotely do not qualify since the state guidelines require that they be ‘at risk of occupational exposure to SARS-CoV-2 through their work.’” This guidance conflicts with the state websites like My Turn which does not ask about the ability to work from home and created subsequent confusion for student employees and TAs who work remotely. 

Medicine and biomedical ethics professor David Magnus agreed that ineligible students should not skip the line but did not blame students who were vaccinated on ambiguous terms like those in the education category.

Magnus wrote he was “hesitant to place any judgment on any students or faculty or employee who got vaccinated because they were deemed eligible.” 

“I don’t think this problem is fundamentally a problem of individual morality, but is primarily an issue of distributive justice,” Magnus wrote. “As a result, the locus of ethical concern should be the role of institutions and government in developing an appropriate framework and creating just policies.”

Both Taylor and Alex justified their early vaccination by stating that living in dorms and the social environment on campus put students at greater risk of contracting and spreading the virus, especially given reports of on-campus students breaking COVID-19 restrictions. 

“Given the number of people that are on campus and just kind of going out and about, I definitely do think that students in dorms especially should be given higher priority,” Taylor said.

Mihir Garimella ’21 saw things differently. “Older people need it more than younger people,” Garimella said. “There are objectively people who need it more than people our age, so I was not willing to get vaccinated [before I was eligible].” 

At the time Garimella was interviewed, approximately 56% of individuals in California aged 65 and older had received the full COVID-19 vaccine. Garimella is planning to get vaccinated once all individuals in California aged 16 and older are eligible on April 15.

“I mean, at the end of the day, you do what you want to do,” Garimella said. “But what I’m personally not okay with is people lying completely and not recognizing that they did.”

Victoria Hsieh '24 is a Desk Editor for the Business and Technology Desk looking to major in Computer Science and minor in Political Science. She is from Seattle and thereby a caffeine and hiking fanatic. Contact The Daily’s News section at news ‘at’ Ramani ’21 is a senior staff writer for the Data section and was The Daily’s Data Director for Volumes 257+258. He hails from the Hoosier Heartland of West Lafayette, Indiana and is studying economics and computer science. Contact him at aramani ‘at’

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