“Get the Covid-19 vaccine, NOW!”
Molly Wilson saw the bold font jump out from a mailer sent to her mother in January from New Perspective Senior Living, which runs two dozen long-term care centers in the upper midwest.
“The sooner you commit to joining a New Perspective community,” the mailer said, the sooner “you and your loved one can both get the Covid-19 vaccine.”
Wilson, who handles finances for her mother, who has dementia, read the marketing postcard in disgust.
“I found it disturbing that this facility was marketing based on access to a vaccine,” said Wilson, who runs a hybrid school-therapy center outside St. Paul, Minnesota, in an email. It angered her further that when she got the mailer, the staff at her school, which is held in-person, had not gotten the chance to be vaccinated. Just 7% of people nationwide had been vaccinated in late January, according to CDC data.
Wilson’s mother, who is 75, had already received the vaccine at the long-term care center where she lives. However, around three out of four Minnesotans older than 65 have not been vaccinated yet. For those seniors and their children, “if you get a piece of mail that says ‘Hey, if you want a vaccine, we can hook you up,” she said, “I could see where that would be attractive.” If she and her mother were in the same situation, “we might have thought about it,” she said. “It’s a scary time.”
The Minnesota Department of Health, which regulates long-term care centers, said it would refer New Perspective’s marketing to the state attorney general after an inquiry from a Forbes contributor.
“The purpose of the Covid-19 vaccination program is to protect Minnesotans from disease and death and we expect vaccine providers to administer doses based solely on that guidance,” health department spokesman John Schadl. said in a statement. “We are troubled by the appearance that the vaccine may be used as part of a marketing effort for a private business. We are asking the Minnesota Attorney General’s office to review this.”
After speaking with the health department on Friday, New Perspective said it would stop sending the advertisement, according to the company’s head of marketing, Doug Anderson.
The company “never intended to misrepresent or deviate from the goal of the vaccination plan recommended by the CDC and implemented by our state health department,” he said in a statement. “On the contrary, we believed the information we shared reflected that residents of long-term care communities were part of the first-tier vaccination plan. Our intention was to provide information to prospective residents and their families about their ability to access the Covid-19 vaccine while honoring the vaccination prioritization set up by the state.”
Residents of long-term care facilities, which include assisted-living homes and nursing homes, are part of the first-priority group in the CDC’s recommendations for distributing the vaccine. Elderly people are more vulnerable to Covid-19, and living in a so-called congregant setting increases the risk of spread. This prioritization is what allows long-term care centers to get doses of vaccine. At the same time, senior-living homes, which includes assisted-living facilities, are emptier than they have been in at least 15 years.
Offering “early vaccine access,” in exchange for a product or service, as the New Perspective mailer did, seemingly contradicts the CDC guidelines meant to give the vaccine based on need. But it falls in a legal grey area and it is not clear that the business is breaking any rules. The federal guidelines are voluntary, and states and localities can, and have, given the vaccine to who they want. “It isn’t clear whether anybody’s recommendations are binding, and it isn’t clear what the penalties are if you don’t follow them,” said Arthur Caplan, a bioethics professor at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine.
The lack of a national standard creates a state-by-state patchwork of rules that lead people to think they’re unfair, he added. The public is also angry at seeing well-connected people, like the spouses of politicians, get the vaccine before their turn. As a result, “you start to see public support for following the rules collapse,” Caplan said, and “all kinds of schemes” unfold, such as hospitals giving vaccines to donors and doctors exaggerating diagnoses so patients will qualify as an at-risk population entitled to the vaccine sooner. A Forbes report found that primary care company One Medical has not been enforcing state guidelines in distributing Covid-19 vaccines, according to two employees.
“People will turn to self interest when they think it’s an unfair system,” said Caplan. “I wouldn’t call it a mass movement but more and more every day people are getting desperate.”
Full coverage and live updates on the Coronavirus