California expands vaccine eligibility. But it’s confusing, and some people may cut the line

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

Drivers line up for coronavirus vaccination shots at Dodger Stadium in LA, March 13, 2021. Photo by Brian Hardzinski/KCRW

Nearly 4.5 million Californians are newly eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. The state opened up appointments for people with underlying health conditions and disabilities on Monday. 

However, there are many gray areas, with subjective language from the state saying that if you have a condition putting you at higher risk of COVID-19, you should still be eligible. That’s according to LA Times reporter Colleen Shalby.

“I've heard from people, for instance, who have asthma who aren't completely sure if they qualify right now. There were others that have type one diabetes that weren't included in that language initially, but type two diabetes were. So it has created a bit of ongoing confusion.” 

However, getting an appointment has been difficult. People have struggled to navigate the website MyTurn, where Californians are supposed to sign up for a shot.

When people do sign up for a vaccine, they don’t have to show much proof, if any. 

“You can sign a self attestation form, basically saying that you meet the criteria of eligibility. But you don't have to show extensive paperwork, you don't have to show a doctor's note. You can bring documentation with you, but it's not required right now by the state,” says Shalby. 

Does that mean unqualified people are making appointments and getting vaccines? 

“We've definitely seen line jumping in the past. We've seen some fraudulent behavior, or people have tried to use forged documents to jump ahead in that line. And fraud is definitely a possibility with this looser verification process.”

However, she says advocates, especially in the disability rights community, have been pushing for a verification process that “doesn’t force people to jump through hoops” and prioritizes those who are less mobile. 

Shalby points out that pop-up vaccine clinics are appearing in various communities that might be easier to reach, especially for people who don’t have cars. People are also relying on their own doctors to point them to the best spaces for vaccines.  

The state is also allocating 40% of vaccines to underserved communities. However, what’s stopping a West LA resident from driving to Crenshaw to get their shot? 

“There hasn't been detailed explanation of how they're going to prevent people from ... trying to get in front of the line when they may not qualify. And so this, again, is a bit of that gray space that we're in, where the state is really relying on this honor system. ... But at this point, there's no concrete policing happening. So if someone does try to get ahead in line, it's really unclear what happens at that point,” says Shalby.

She points out that a big issue here is ensuring vaccines are not wasted, that these limited supplies are getting into people’s arms. 

“The messaging has been conflicting at times. On the one hand, people who are most eligible are able to get the vaccine. But on the other hand, you don't want the vaccine to go to waste.”

Vaccine access also varies depending on which website you use to book appointments. Many people have struggled with navigating the state’s relatively new site, MyTurn, and may find no appointments available there. But sites run by Kaiser or Carbon Health may show tons of appointments. 

“I've spoken with people who have said, ‘I was really confused, and I put a call out on Twitter, and a random stranger helps me lock down an appointment because I just wasn't sure where to even begin,’” Shalby says. “And I think with all of the various messaging around the vaccine and the rollout and who qualifies and who doesn't, what sometimes does get lost is those very precise, detailed instructions that I think people come to rely on when they're trying to set up an appointment.”