California vaccine mishap: 25-year-old fitness instructors get vaccinated as 'healthcare workers'

Stephanie Sierra Image
Friday, February 12, 2021
'Vaccine loophole' lets fitness instructors go ahead of others
The California Department of Public Health created a loophole for fitness instructors across the state to qualify as healthcare workers and get vaccinated in Tier 1-A, according to an ABC7 I-Team investigation.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The California Department of Public Health created a loophole for fitness instructors across the state to qualify as healthcare workers and get vaccinated in Tier 1-A, according to an ABC7 I-Team investigation.

"It's not right," said Kimi Hori, a fitness instructor in Santa Clara County. "We are not healthcare workers."

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On Jan. 7, Hori and her colleagues were told they were eligible to receive the vaccine under Tier 1-A after the state released guidance roles like "outdoor recreational facilities - facilitating - outdoor exercise" qualified under the classification of healthcare workers.

"My initial reaction was, healthcare workers? Really?" said Hori. "The vaccine should be going to those who really need it... not fit 25-year-olds."

Hori says mass emails were sent throughout the fitness industry. Word spread fast.

A manager at the Bay Club in Santa Clara was tagged in a Facebook post encouraging her colleagues to call a toll-free number at Kaiser Permanente to schedule appointments.

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The manager, we chose not to identify wrote: "Yes, you are a healthcare worker - check line 22."

Stephanie Sierra: "How many fitness instructors do you believe have taken advantage of this classification?"

Kimi Hori: "15 to 20 that I know of... but there are so many emails that have gone out from different clubs and there are thousands of instructors in this area."

Stephanie: "Were any of these fitness instructors you're speaking of - 65 or older?"

Kimi: "None of them. These are instructors that are strong and healthy... probably just over 25 to around 45."

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The Bay Club Company, which has 23 locations across California, encouraged their employees of all ages to get vaccinated starting in January after the state released updated guidance, the ABC7 I-Team confirmed.

ABC7 received the following statement:

"When the State of California implemented the Vaccine Tiers for priority in January 2021, we were pleased to see outdoor recreation was included in Health Care (Health Care/Public Health sector index 1, line item 22). As such, we shared that information with our employees so they could begin the process of receiving vaccinations," said Annie Appel, Senior Executive Vice President at the Bay Club Company.

Although, it wasn't until last Friday the state updated the rules.

The Bay Club wrote:

"To our disappointment, on Friday, February 5, 2021, we were notified that the State had made changes to the specifics in the Health Care Sector and no longer allowed outdoor recreation be included in Tier 1a. We have also shared this information with our employees and are awaiting further direction from the state for which tier we will be included in," Appel said.

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At a time when the state's vaccine supply is extremely limited, the Governor has stressed the importance of ensuring the vaccine gets into the arms of those most vulnerable.

"It's an issue now of scarcity," Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a Tuesday press conference this week. "I'm frustrated when people that are wealthier, more connected, more technically savvy get ahead of the line."

So why did it take the state close to a month to update the rules?

"Gyms and fitness companies all across the state knew about this," Hori said. "I was getting texts from friends all over."

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ABC7 reached out to the California Department of Public Health several times over the past couple days to get an explanation, but we have yet to hear back.

"Whenever somebody puts themselves in line ahead of another person, they are putting people's lives at risk," said Santa Clara County Supervisor, Cindy Chavez.

Chavez says it's infuriating to hear people are jumping the line as high-risk communities in her district are struggling to access the vaccine.

"If you're 75 and older and you're Latino in our community... the numbers aren't good," Chavez said. "We've only vaccinated 5,000 out of 45,000."

Stephanie Sierra: "Will you make it a priority to bring this to the state to ensure there's better oversight?"

Cindy Chavez: "We have on an ongoing basis been communicating with the state and at the local level... to try and be as crystal clear as we can about the rules."

Apparently, it's still not clear enough.

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California announced earlier this week it would transition to a new age-based prioritization strategy next month after the current phase is complete.

"There needs to be a lot more diligence to make sure providers and our hospital systems check the ID's of the people who are going in and getting appointments," Hori said.

Stephanie Sierra: "Is this still happening?"

Kimi Hori: "Yes, I'm worried it's only getting worse."

Hori says at least five other colleagues in their 40s were able to get vaccinated this week under the 'outdoor recreation' classification despite the rule change implemented last Friday.

Some of the text messages the instructors sent each other said:

"I jumped the line." and "The classification still works!"

According to Hori, her colleagues were told to make an appointment through their provider.

"As they do, they're not being checked, so they go to whatever hospital they go to and they've been vaccinated," said Hori.

It raises the question -- how many others are taking advantage of the loophole and is it being enforced?

According to the Santa Clara District Attorney's Office, anyone who is not in Tier 1-A and attempts to 'jump the line' is doing so under penalty of perjury. Perjury is a felony offense in California and punishable by up to four years in prison with a maximum fine of $10,000.