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Should I Get a Covid-19 Vaccine When Others Need It More?

The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on what should determine eligibility for the Covid-19 vaccine and more.

By Kwame Anthony Appiah

I have a question about receiving the Covid-19 vaccine. I work for a hospital, but in an administrative job. I do not interact with patients. I have worked from home since March. I am not at high risk for contracting Covid-19 based on my age, occupation and lack of health issues. I practice social distancing, I wear my mask in the limited situations in which I go out (to the grocery store, to the Post Office, to get takeout). I live alone and mostly keep to myself and stay home.

Because I work for a hospital, I am eligible to receive the vaccine as part of the second group in my state (after first responders, hospital personnel who interact with patients and people living or working in nursing homes) along with people who are 65 and older, medically vulnerable people and corrections officers. This means I would be vaccinated in the next week or two. If I worked for any other employer (I used to work at a bank), I wouldn’t be eligible to receive the vaccine until the second-to-last or last group of the population, probably not for several months.

Is it ethical for me to get the vaccine now? Part of me feels as if I’m skipping the line, but part of me feels as if this isn’t my decision and at a certain point it’s about getting as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible. I believe in science. I believe in the efficacy of the vaccines currently available. I plan to get the vaccine at some point. I’m just very conflicted about the timing of it. Am I taking someone else’s shot, someone who might need it more than I do? Name Withheld

Whatever rules we make for vaccination priority, there will be trade-offs. We want to minimize the total number of people who become severely or even fatally ill from the disease. We want to protect those whose necessary work puts them at risk of their exposure to the virus. And we want to be fair, treating similarly situated people alike. These desiderata don’t all pull in the same direction. Health care workers who are in their 20s and don’t have certain medical conditions aren’t at high risk if they contract Covid-19. Perhaps we could save more lives if we left them until later.

But there’s another overall desideratum: The system has to be straightforward enough to be managed easily — to get large numbers of people vaccinated as swiftly as possible. We don’t want to have to determine that people meet a dozen conditions before putting the vaccine into their arms: Doing so could slow down the rate of vaccination.

Whatever rules we make for vaccination priority, there will be trade-offs.

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