Vaccine access codes meant for low-income communities are being misused across Bay Area

MARIN COUNTY, Calif, (KGO) -- As California works to create a more equitable vaccine distribution plan, it is hitting another snag.

Appointments reserved for people hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic are being snatched up by people they aren't intended for. It has to do with vaccine access codes -- meant for low-income communities of color -- that are being shared and misused across the state.

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In the Bay Area, the codes are being shared in affluent neighborhoods in Marin County. ABC7 News heard from three different people -- all of whom asked to remain anonymous -- who received an access code for the Oakland Coliseum vaccination site in Alameda County. The site is one of two vaccination centers set up by the state in partnership with the federal government.

One man, who is in his mid-30s, said the text message sent from a friend said there was a surplus of vaccines at the site and so they were opening up appointments to anyone.

"While to all of us it sounded somewhat plausible, it sounded also very unlikely," he said.

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His instincts were right. While he was able to get an appointment, he canceled it last night after learning he was indeed taking a spot away from someone else.

The codes are actually meant for people who live in areas disproportionately impacted by the pandemic - Areas like Marin County's Canal neighborhood, which is made up largely of Latinos and low-income essential workers.

Omar Carrera is the CEO of the Canal Alliance. He's frustrated he didn't even know about the codes and say it's just another reminder of the inequities of the pandemic.
"I didn't know anything about it, so forget about the community," Carrera said. "Of course the ones who are on top of the news, the ones with access to technology, the ones who have connections with the people with information are the ones who are benefitting from it."

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ABC7 News has partnered with the Latino Community Foundation to present, "Race and Coronavirus: A Bay Area Conversation" a virtual and interactive town hall addressing the impact of COVID-19 on Latinos.

According to data from the state, Latinos make up roughly 15% of those vaccinated so far in California, despite accounting for roughly 40% of the state's population.

On Tuesday, Governor Gavin Newsom reiterated his commitment to vaccine equity and expressed his own frustration about people misusing these access codes.

"We're going to go away from group codes to individual codes and we're working with the counties on that," he said. "We don't like to see those abuses. We've been highlighting those abuses."

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Brian Ferguson, a spokesperson for California's Office of Emergency Services, which helps operate the Oakland Coliseum site, said they will begin using individual access codes starting March 1. In the meantime, they are disabling many of those codes, working to better check people at vaccination sites and are asking anyone who receives a code to not misuse it.

Ferguson said the idea that the code helps extra vaccine doses from going to waste is inaccurate. He said the state intentionally sets aside a certain amount of appointments for community groups to use. And even if there are any extra vaccine doses, the state still does whatever they can at the end of the day to make sure it gets into the arms of an essential worker.

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