Doctors protested Stanford hospital's vaccine rollout after the algorithm it used left out frontline workers and gave shots to high-ranking officials and employees working from home instead

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Stanford doctors on Friday protested the system’s vaccine rollout plan, as multiple hospitals come under fire for giving too many doses to staff who aren’t on the front line, according to reports from San Francisco Chronicle.

Physicians held a demonstration at Stanford Medical Center on Friday morning, saying the hospital neglected frontline workers in favor of high-ranking officials and employees who work from home. 

According to a letter seen by the San Francisco Chronicle, protestors sent a letter to top Stanford officials saying that only seven residents and fellows were included in the first round of vaccinations, which began on Friday. The hospital used an algorithm aimed at older health care workers and employees. 

In a statement, a representative for Stanford Medical said it took “complete responsibility” for issues with the vaccine’s rollout.

“Our intent was to develop an ethical and equitable process for distrubtion of the vaccine,” the statement said. “We apologize to our entire community, inlcluding our residents, fellows, and other frontline care providers, who have performed heroically during our pandemic response. We are immediately revising our plan to better sequence the distribution of the vaccine.”

The demonstrations come during the first week of the coronavirus vaccine rollout, which began after the Food and Drug Administration authorized the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use last week. Vaccinations will first be available to health care workers and nursing home residents. The rest of the US population should expect to gain access to the vaccine in Spring 2021.

In anticipation of the rollout, health care systems across the country spent weeks figuring out who on staff should get vaccinated first. Intermountain Healthcare in Utah, Northwell Health in New York, and Yale New Haven Health in Connecticut told Business Insider this month that health care workers in direct contact with coronavirus patients would be first in line for the vaccine

Read more: ‘This is game time’: Hospitals across the country are gearing up to give the first COVID-19 shots to millions of healthcare workers

Even as many hospitals say they are reserving the first vaccine doses for front-line workers, some hospital employees are worried that their institutions aren’t prioritizing correctly, or at all. Mount Sinai was criticized this week for allowing a marketing staff member based in an urgent care center to receive a vaccine on Tuesday, Politico reported.

In Stanford’s case, the hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. Niraj Sehgal, apologized to staff this week for “unintended missteps” in vaccine rollout, according to a screenshot of the email shared on Twitter. Another email, sent to staff this morning, confirmed that the vaccine rollout failed to include trainees.

“There were multiple conversations leading up to this point at which time we were assured that the trainees were to be put in each wave to spread the doses out to not impact the workforce but to prioritize the group as a whole,” the email said. “We realize this first allocation failed to provide the correct order of protection.”

Some hospitals taking a more randomized approach to vaccine rollouts for staff may be doing so to shield themselves from legal liability. For example, if hospitals prioritize older staff to receive the vaccine, they could be opening themselves up to age discrimination. Labor and employment workers say employers likely can’t require older workers to be vaccinated first, even if it’s for their protection. 

Read more: Yes, your boss might require you to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Labor lawyers weigh in on what rights employees have.

Karla Grossenbacher, who chairs law firm Seyfarth Shaw’s labor and employment practice in Washington, DC, said that randomizing vaccine rollouts could be an okay way to steer clear of potential legal pitfalls but “wouldn’t be the best way to do it.” Instead, employers should focus on the different levels of risks presented by each job and prioritize that way. 

Katherine Dudley Helms, managing shareholder of law firm Ogletree Deakins’ Columbia, South Carolina office and a member of the firm’s coronavirus task force and healthcare practice group, pointed out that randomizing vaccine rollouts could actually put a hospital at more legal risk if there were opportunities to “slide in a buddy” and have people cut the line. 

“Here’s the trick: it has to be truly randomized,” she said, adding that it may be a better strategy for hospitals to prioritize the most at-risk workers and then randomize vaccinating everyone else. 

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