‘First in the Room, Back of the Line’: Doctors Revolt Over Stanford’s ‘Absurd’ Vaccine Rollout

Ana Lucia Murillo, Pilar Melendez
Twitter/San Francisco Chronicle
Twitter/San Francisco Chronicle

More than a hundred medical workers at the Stanford Medical Center held a massive walkout on Friday, accusing the institution of unfairly distributing its COVID-19 vaccine as the pandemic rages across California.

During the first week of coronavirus vaccinations in the U.S., Stanford’s resident physicians and fellows said they noticed senior doctors who were not working directly with COVID-19 patients had already received vaccines, ahead of frontline health workers. Many of those vaccinated were working from home or assigned to non-essential procedures, they said.

“First in the room, back of the line,” workers chanted as they marched out of the center on Friday afternoon carrying signs. Videos and photos posted on social media show dozens of scrubs-clad workers walking around the medical facility before congregating at a stairwell.

“I saw 16 Covid patients in the last 24 hours...More than Double the amount of residents getting the vaccine,” read one sign held up by a masked medical worker.

“It’s not just about the residents. We stand here to represent our nurses. We are here to back them. Our respiratory therapists, our environmental services workers, food staff, everybody,” one resident said during the protest, before revealing that only two pediatric emergency nurses have been offered vaccines.

Another Stanford resident, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional retaliation, charged that Stanford is “neglecting” its frontline workers, especially those who are just starting their careers and have been willing to put their lives on the line to provide care during the pandemic. The resident claimed only “about seven residents and fellows” are slated to receive the vaccine in this first round, out of 5,000 available doses.

“To put that into context, there are about 1,300 of us,” the resident told The Daily Beast. “That means some medical workers who have been in critical care were passed over while those who have been working from home since the pandemic started will get the vaccine.”

“I mean, some medical professionals who are slated to get one of the 5,000 vaccines... haven’t even touched an N-95 mask or treated a COVID-19 patient. It’s absurd,” the resident added.

The protesters told The San Francisco Chronicle that the seven who were included in the first round of vaccinations were orthopedic surgeons, nurses treating outpatients, and a dermatologist.

On Friday, departments across Stanford’s Medical Center showed their solidarity with the protesting medical workers on social media, and some doctors were reportedly giving up their spots in the vaccination line.

Stanford Health Care’s Department of Urology and the chiefs of the internal medicine unit were among those in the medical community who tweeted their dislike for the algorithm Stanford had put in place to determine who would get the vaccine first. Roxana Daneshjou, a dermatologist at Stanford, tweeted that some “attendings...immediately gave up their spots because they didn’t ask to be in the first wave and obviously want the frontline to get it first.”

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“The Stanford EM Residency program was dismayed by the vaccine allocation process. An algorithm, which was designed to ensure equitable distribution of the first round of vaccines, failed to adequately identify high risk healthcare workers. Although residents were included in the initial pool for consideration, the algorithm let them down and far too few were included in the first round,” Dr. Sara Marie Krzyzaniak, a clinical associate professor for Stanford’s Department of Emergency Medicine, told The Daily Beast.

“Our department leadership has worked tirelessly to help right this wrong. Our program has immense gratitude for our residents and is deeply grateful for their work on the frontline caring for our patients,” Krzyzaniak added.

The stunning protest elicited a quick response from Stanford’s leadership, including Stanford Health Care CEO David Entwhistle, who reportedly told the assembled crowd: “We’ll correct it. We know that it’s wrong.”

In a statement to The Daily Beast, Medical Center officials said they “take complete responsibility for the errors in the execution of our vaccine distribution plan” and promised that a new solution was being worked on.

At least 22,160 people have died and 1.7 million more have tested positive for COVID-19 in California, which is experiencing a brutal wave of cases that has forced state officials to implement hard-line restrictions. On Thursday, the state saw 52,000 new cases—more infections than in all of Germany or India—and was battling a positivity rate of almost 12 percent.

Complaints of people “cutting” the vaccine line have been growing across the country. Mount Sinai Hospital in New York faced criticism this week for vaccinating an employee in the marketing department before hospital workers who directly interact with COVID-19 patients.

And before Friday’s protest, Stanford residents and fellows sent a letter to university leaders in response to the distribution plan, stating that the initial allocation of its over 5,000 obtained Pfizer vaccines was not sufficient.

Dr. Earth Hasassri, a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at Stanford Medical Center, tweeted in response to Stanford’s plan, “Except you forgot about those of us on the front lines: residents and fellows were essentially not included in the first round of vaccines despite working 80+ hours per week in the hospital treating COVID-19 patients.”

In the letter to university leaders, employees said there was still “no articulated plan” to vaccinate residents and fellows, and the pecking order didn’t match the exposure level. “It is important for us to articulate to you that at this time, residents are hurt, disappointed, frustrated, angry, and feel a deep sense of distrust towards the hospital administration given the sacrifices we have been making and the promises that were made to us,” they wrote.

Stanford officials sent multiple emails this week apologizing for the botched distribution, according to Politico, which obtained two of the emails from a tipster. The first one, from Stanford Chief Medical Officer Niraj Sehgal, said it was “clear there were several unintended missteps” and lamented the “perceived lack of priority for residents and fellows,” which Sehgal insisted was not intentional.

Another email later in the week from Stanford officials reminded recipients that although frontline workers were denied vaccinations this round, another 15,000 doses are arriving next week. “There are active conversations now to make sure trainees are represented in all the upcoming tiers in a significant way,” the email said.

“Disparities in distribution of the vaccine can be seen at a micro-level at Stanford today. I worry that the situation we see at [Stanford] is a harbinger of population-level inequities of vaccine distribution for our underserved communities,” Dr. Christine Santiago, a resident in Stanford’s internal medicine program, tweeted Friday.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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