Should You Wait to Get the COVID Vaccine if You Think Other People Need It More?

If you're eligible to get the COVID-19, get it — for your health and the health of others.
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States each have their own way of allocating COVID-19 vaccine eligibility, and maybe it's your turn now. You might be an essential worker, a caretaker, a teacher or someone at higher risk for getting really sick from the virus.

But what if you're healthy and feel like you really "don't need" to get the vaccine right away? Would getting yours take it away from someone else? Or should you get vaccinated for the good of public health?

We asked two experts in vaccine ethics for their take on these common questions.

Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Should You Get the COVID Vaccine When You Qualify for It?

Here's the quick answer: "When it's your turn and you qualify according to the criteria [in your area], it's appropriate to make an appointment," Jeffrey Kahn, PhD, MPH, the director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics in Baltimore, Maryland, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

In other words, as soon as you can get the vaccine, you should get it.

Backing up a bit, though, it's important to acknowledge that it's totally normal to feel hesitant or to question whether you're doing the right thing by getting in line.

"The first thing I'd say to someone is thank you for being reflective, thoughtful and generous," Kelly Michelson, MD, MPH, director of the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "This is exactly what we need as a community to get through this."

As a health care provider who is not in a high-risk group, Dr. Michelson was eligible early on to receive the vaccine.

"That gave me a lot of pause, particularly when I have parents who are much older and higher risk. I would have given them the vaccine before me, but it didn't work out that way," she says.

She got vaccinated when it was her turn, and she advises everyone else to do the same.

"The system seems to work better when we pay attention to when it's our time. When your priority group is announced, seek out the vaccine. And stay safe in the meantime."

Are You Taking the Vaccine Away From Someone Who 'Needs It More?'

That's an almost impossible question.

"It's really hard to know who would take your place in line if you wait," Dr. Kahn says.

But rest assured that if you qualify, you're not "taking" anything from anyone.

"In some way, we don't want individuals to have to make these responsible allocation decisions. We want authorities to tell us when it's our turn to get vaccinated," Dr. Kahn says.

There are a number of different criteria that health authorities use to develop the recommendations for who gets vaccinated and when. Though guidelines vary by state, higher-priority groups fall in the following categories:

  • You have a higher risk of getting severely ill
  • You have a higher risk of getting or spreading the virus, such as grocery store workers
  • You have a job that serves an essential role for society, such as teachers

If you fall into one of those groups, there was a well-thought-out reason why you got the go-ahead. Even if you're healthy, getting vaccinated benefits other people's health, because your vaccination will help decrease the spread of the disease.

Let's say you're a teacher, for example, or a grocery store worker. By getting vaccinated, you're avoiding a potential chain of transmission that starts with you and spreads to any one of the people you come into contact with on a regular basis, who could then continue to spread the disease to others, including higher-risk people.

Or let's say you have obesity or are a smoker — two groups of people that have a higher risk of getting really sick from COVID-19. Even if you're otherwise healthy, getting COVID could land you in the hospital. That's not great for you, and it adds to the strain on the health care system, which is also trying to care for higher-risk people who haven't gotten the shot.

In short: ​Anyone​ who gets vaccinated increases the total number of people vaccinated, Dr. Michelson says, which helps prevent COVID from spreading further. Ultimately, increasing that number is what will get us to the other side of this pandemic.

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What About People Who 'Cut' in Line?

A similar ethical issue popping up is getting an appointment and receiving the vaccine when it's not your turn. Pretending to be a smoker, for example, or stretching the truth about where you work in order to qualify based on your state's guidelines. Or even traveling to another state to get vaccinated.

The idea of jumping in line is real and people do it. While it can be annoying or enraging, what's likely happening is that there's a distrust that the system is working. Fair enough, right?

At the rollout of the vaccine, it was overwhelmingly tough to make an appointment or even figure out how to get one. Some places gave appointments by lottery, others first-come-first-serve, while some allowed walk-ins at the end of the day for open vials. The result? Lots of confusion and then distrust of that whole "wait your turn" thing, Dr. Kahn says.

"There will always be people who cut in line at a concert. But the system works because that's a small fraction of people who do that. Everyone else in line notices that the person budged in line and says ​hey, that's not right!​" Dr. Kahn says. But if everyone saw that guy cut and then all decided to rush the line, well, there would be big problems.

The same holds true in this scenario. If you have a friend or acquaintance who received a vaccine when it wasn't their turn, that's not license to do it yourself. (And by the way, that's a completely understandable urge, right? We're in a pandemic! It's tough to know exactly what to do.)

No matter what side of this you're on, the fortunate news is that there are increasing numbers of people being vaccinated each day. It will be yours and everyone else's turn soon, so try to be patient.

"The system seems to work better when we pay attention to when it's our time. When your priority group is announced, seek out the vaccine. And stay safe in the meantime," Dr. Kahn says.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker before leaving the house.