Medical workers say Culver City hospital denied them COVID-19 vaccines in favor of employee relatives
It was like a scene from the halcyon days of Studio 54, the legendary New York City discotheque where often only A-listers, name droppers and the well-connected were allowed inside.
When word leaked out last month that Southern California Hospital in Culver City would share its extra doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine over three days with the local medical community, frontline workers flocked to the 450-bed facility.
What they found when they got there was troubling.
Long lines of people, both young and old, snaked through the hospital. Some medical workers reported being turned away by security guards who instead allowed hospital employees to escort family members inside, where they received the vaccine that isn’t readily available to most Californians.
“It seemed to be less about what you did for a living and more of who you knew” to obtain a vaccine, said Katie Brockert, a home health physical therapist who went to the hospital three times but was denied a vaccine on each occasion. “California Department of Public Heath guidelines for distribution were not being adhered to and those who have direct risk of exposure were being pushed aside because family members of Southern California Hospital were being prioritized and favored.”
Southern California Hospital officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment regarding the allegations. However, in an email last week, hospital spokeswoman Laura M. Gilbert said relatives of staff members were not invited to the facility for vaccinations.
Southern California Hospital received more COVID-19 vaccines than needed for its employees and, to prevent them from going to waste, offered them to physicians who treat patients at the facility as well as police officers, firefighters, emergency medical personnel and public service employees, she said.
Distribution in disarray
Several frontline workers who went to the hospital for vaccinations criticized the distribution process as nepotistic, disorganized and risky due to a lack of COVID-19 protocols.
One doctor, who asked not to be identified, said she learned from a friend of a friend on Dec. 23 that vaccines were available through a physician at Southern California Hospital.
“The physician had let close friends know that he had extra doses available and to use his name to get in and also gave his phone number,” the doctor said.
The doctor, clad in surgical scrubs, went to the hospital about 8 a.m. the next day, approached two security guards outside the front entrance and asked permission to go inside.
They denied her request, saying the vaccines were only for employees.
The doctor then appealed to a hospital employee in a white lab coat who had been standing near the security guards, and mentioned the name of the physician who originally offered the extra vaccine doses.
“He made me wait for 10 minutes while deciding my fate,” the doctor said, likening the scrutiny from the man in the coat to that given to party goers trying to enter Studio 54. “He was like the bouncer at the club deciding if I was pretty enough to get in.”
Things became even more strange for the doctor once inside the hospital.
She watched in disbelief as numerous hospital employees walked out the front entrance, only to return a short time later apparently with family members waiting to be vaccinated.
Then, as workers finished their shifts and were leaving the hospital, security guards encouraged them to invite relatives to be inoculated, the doctor said.
Frontline worker turned away
At one point, the doctor said, an urgent care worker pleaded with security guards for permission to also enter the hospital.
The request was summarily denied. When the urgent care worker expressed dismay at being turned down, especially when others were being allowed in, the employee in the white coat replied, “It’s a fluid situation and is not going to make sense,” the doctor recalled.
The doctor waited for about 45 minutes in a line that meandered through the cafeteria and into conference rooms where the vaccines were administered. Photos obtained by the Southern California News Group show that while those in line wore protective masks, many appeared to stand less than 6 feet apart.
“I talked to a few people in line,” the doctor said. “One was the son of an employee and the other was a group of four people who were family members.”
When the doctor reached the front of the line, a hospital worker who collected her paperwork didn’t ask where she worked or request her medical credentials.
“The sad part of it all is there were health care workers pleading for vaccines who were turned away, but they let those who didn’t work in health care receive them without batting an eye,” she said. “It’s so crazy. I am glad people were lining up, but I want to make sure those in high risk are being offered vaccinations first.”
3 times isn’t a charm
Brockert, the physical therapist, said she was given the runaround three times over two days in an unsuccessful attempt to get vaccinated.
During her first visit, Brockert said she displayed her medical credentials, but hospital staff informed her they weren’t allowing any more people to stand in line and that she should come back the following day. When she returned twice the next day, Brockert again was rebuffed by those who told her only employees with hospital badges were being vaccinated.
“It was very frustrating for me to receive one set of information from the hospital employees about who was allowed to get the vaccine and then to hear accounts from other people who didn’t work at Southern California Hospital who got vaccinated there anyways, and then heard from people in the line that they were family members of health care workers and not on the front lines themselves,” she said. “It was contradictory and unfair.”
Jennifer Samuels, a pediatric nurse practitioner, and colleague Valerie Hill, a nurse practitioner for low-income individuals, were among those received a vaccine at Southern California Hospital.
Samuels said a nurse who took her paperwork let it slip that the hospital was giving shots to family members.
“I was surprised she would admit this,” Samuels said, adding she was prepared to present her medical credentials to the employee. “It’s possible she thought I was hospital staff or maybe it never even occurred to her that it was just wrong.”
Hill said she’s infuriated. “There are a million clinics in the area and other options instead of opening up the vaccines to family members,” she added.
Others also immunizing relatives
Southern California Hospital apparently isn’t the only facility inoculating relatives. A 33-year-old Riverside woman bragged on Facebook in December that a family member who works at Redlands Community Hospital helped her obtain the Pfizer vaccine.
Additionally, the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month that Los Angeles County officials allowed dozens of people to obtain COVID-19 immunizations without showing proof they are medical workers.
Andrea Garcia, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, said the city is taking precautions to prevent ineligible people from jumping the line to obtain vaccines.
“All appointments are screened using the county and state joint vaccine portal, and site staff are trained to verify patient eligibility according to Los Angeles County Public Health, state of California and Centers for Disease Control guidelines,:” she said in a statement. “Nevertheless, this is a new operation, and we are working together to improve our process and address any issues that arise.”
There may be times when it is appropriate to give a dose of the vaccine to someone who isn’t a frontline medical worker but it must be done in compliance with local or California Department of Public Health guidance, said Michelle Cave, a spokeswoman for the state Board of Registered Nursing.