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I’m Too Close to the Front of the Vaccine Line

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

By Mary Coombs

Being a contrarian, I’m not writing to express outrage that I don’t yet have access to a vaccination. I am upset at the glitches and failures in the rollout, especially from the federal government, which promised to ship enough vaccines to the states and – it now turns out – the stockpile is as empty as Trump’s stockpile of decency and honesty.

Here in Oregon, they have decided, as many states have, to add “people over 65” to the first two categories currently allowed to access the vaccinations: front-line health care workers, and residents and staff of nursing homes/ assisted living facilities. At almost 77, I should be very happy.

I actually think this is wrong-headed. In the original proposals, the second grouping was people over 65 and essential workers. To put only the former forward we thus put the essential workers much further back in the queue.

The reasons for each of those groups to be early are persuasive, but different. Age corresponds to the likelihood of death or serious illness, so those who are more at risk if they do get infected should be closer to the front of the line. But more exposure corresponds to a greater likelihood of contracting Covid-19, so those who are more frequently exposed (through no fault of their own) should also be closer to the front of the line. I am particularly concerned about pushing essential workers further back: they are forced to work at jobs that make it very hard for them to protect themselves. Poultry processing workers are compelled to stand much closer than 6 feet, with only a plastic shield between them and their co-workers, because the assembly line can’t be completely reworked (and OSHA has declined to inspect or consider their concerns as part of workplace safety). Grocery store workers are often faced with customers who refuse to wear masks or to socially distance, and employers who are unable or unwilling to offend customers by enforcing the rules.

Maybe I’m a cynic, but I would note that, compared to essential workers, people over 65 are more comfortable with the technology needed to sign up for the vaccinations, wealthier and whiter. They are also more politically active (and more Republican, which is why Florida’s Governor DeSantis put them up front even before the feds changed the rules).

I wish we could all be vaccinated as soon as possible. But if I had to make a choice, I’d put essential workers first, and perhaps the older old (over 75 or 80) and/or with health conditions that make them more at risk. Personally, I’m willing to continue masking/social distancing/handwashing/ avoiding high risk places for a few more months.


Mary I. Coombs earned a B.A. in 1965, an M.A. in sociology in 1967, an M.A. in library science in 1970, and a J.D. in 1978, all from the University of Michigan. Following graduation from law school, she served as law clerk to Judge Henry J. Friendly of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. She was in private practice until she joined the University of Miami School of Law faculty in 1983. She was a professor at the law school for 31 years, until retiring in 2014



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