California’s Vaccine Sites Don’t All Require Proof Of Eligibility, Leaving Room For Line Jumpers

When Doug Garfinkel, a San Francisco teacher, walked into Walgreens last week to get his first coronavirus shot, he was surprised no one asked for identification or proof that he was the educator he said he was when he made his appointment online.

Garfinkel, whose profession became eligible for vaccination last week, said he understands why it’s important not to put up barriers that would discourage people from getting inoculated, especially because some are distrustful of vaccines. Still, he’s concerned the lack of checks may allow people to cheat.

“Once people realize there’s zero requirement to prove anything — no one even asks you screening questions — it might open the floodgates for people to get in line earlier,” said Garfinkel, 60. “In that case, the people who do it are more privileged. They have electronic access or feel like they’re not going to get in trouble. They’ll find out about it on social media. It’ll be unfair, or doubly unfair.”

A Walgreens spokeswoman said customers must attest to their eligibility before booking their vaccine appointment. Then, at their appointment, they must sign an affidavit confirming they meet their state’s eligibility requirements. For California, that means being a health care worker, 65 or older, or an essential worker in the field of education, child care, food, agriculture or emergency services. The spokeswoman added that Walgreens also asks customers to show a government ID at their appointment but will not turn away people who don’t — unless the ID is required by the state, county or city. Garfinkel said he was never asked to produce an ID.

The state has issued no guidelines on how vaccination sites should verify eligibility. Counties have varying rules, with some leaving it up to the vaccination site to decide what verification, if any, to require.

The lack of uniform rules and enforcement underscores the porous nature of California’s approach to vaccination. While relying largely on the honor system helps advance the urgent public health goal of quickly vaccinating as many people as possible, it also leaves the rules open to abuse.

But because many vaccination sites are not checking for proof of employment-related eligibility, it’s unclear how many individuals have cheated the system, or tried to.

Last week, state officials said they were going to deactivate vaccine group codes meant to be used by eligible people in underserved areas. Instead, the codes were circulated and misused by younger people who may have thought they were signing up for doses that were set to expire. Another code — intended for a community group in Los Angeles — began circulating in the Bay Area over the weekend. By Sunday, it was no longer functional.

For the most part, people have to attest that they’re part of an eligible group when making an appointment. This typically involves checking a box that says one is 65 or older, or is an eligible essential worker. But many people do not have to show proof, such as a work badge or letter from their employer, once they show up to get their shot.

Some Bay Area health departments — run by San Mateo, Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Solano counties — require people who qualify for vaccines based on their jobs to bring documentation to county-run vaccination sites. But enforcement varies by county.

Vaccination sites run by San Mateo County, for example, ask food and agriculture workers — but not teachers, who get verified by the county education office — to bring a work ID, work badge, pay stub or letter from their employer when they check in, according to a county spokesperson. But if they do not, the rule is not strictly enforced.

“We know that documentation can really be a barrier, and we don’t want to be creating barriers for our residents to get vaccinated,” said Louise Rogers, the county chief of health. “And so we do have a process that allows for attestation in cases where people don’t have any kind of a pay stub or documentation that would establish their eligibility.”

County-run vaccination sites in Marin have turned away some people because they did not meet eligibility. And a “very small number of people” have showed up without proof of eligibility, but they returned with necessary paperwork and were allowed to be vaccinated, said Laine Hendricks, Marin County’s spokeswoman.

San Francisco, Contra Costa, Alameda and Santa Clara counties require no proof of eligibility based on employment. Neither does the Oakland Coliseum site, which is jointly run by FEMA and the California Office of Emergency Services, or Cal-OES.

The Coliseum asks people to declare their eligibility when making an appointment through the state’s MyTurn online portal. However, they are not required to bring proof of job-based eligibility to their appointment. They have to show ID, but it doesn’t have to be government-issued ID, in part because some people may be undocumented, said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for Cal-OES. That is the same FEMA protocol that shelters follow when checking in residents after disasters such as wildfires, he said.


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