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COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout Comes With a Dose of Guilt and Envy

Confusing inoculation processes provoke strong emotions as some get lucky and others get shut out

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Katie Lemen, 57, kept her eyes on the floor when she stood in line for her COVID-19 vaccine. As a school district employee she qualified to get the shot. And because she is a stroke survivor, her doctor wanted her to get vaccinated quickly.

That didn't mitigate her feeling of guilt that somehow she was taking a shot that should be going to someone else.

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"I was in a big room; it seemed like an airport terminal.... Almost everyone in there was 80 or older,” says Lemen, of Silver Spring, Maryland. “It was awful. A couple people looked at me weirdly, but what could I do? I kept telling people, ‘Why don't you go ahead of me?’ “

spinner image Katie Lemen
After getting her shot, Katie Lemen had the feeling she was taking taking doses away from those who might need them more.
Courtesy Katie Lemen

As COVID-19 vaccinations become available, guilt and envy are playing a significant role in the process. Some of that is provoked by differences among states, or even counties, in who can get vaccinated: A healthy, young teacher might be permitted to get the vaccine in one place, while a 65-year-old with a chronic health condition is still waiting in another.

In addition, vaccine rollouts have been confusing and fraught with technical issues, so often it’s more tech-savvy individuals who score an appointment. And there are racial disparities — advocates for Black and Hispanic communities say distribution of doses isn’t equitable. Not to mention the situation with leftover vaccine, that have resulted, in some cases, with health providers flagging down just about anyone — even those who typically wouldn’t qualify for the vaccine — in order to prevent tossing expired doses.

Lemen says the knowledge that taking the vaccine helps prevent further spread is helpful. But she still grieves for those who are older and can’t get it.

“I have two uncles and an aunt, all in their 80s, living in their houses. They don’t go to grocery stores, church, anywhere. People drop off things to them,” Lemen says. “This is especially hard for my aunt because she’s very social, always going somewhere. She is at the point that she’d rather die than not see people.”

Grappling with emotions

Experts say this guilt and envy is to be expected.

“I have gone through both [guilt and envy] myself,” says psychotherapist Steven Rosenberg, of Philadelphia. “You have to realize that by taking the vaccine, you’re helping out humankind. And you just have to think of that and go on.”

His envy flared over stories of nonessential workers and young people visiting drugstores to get doses that would otherwise need to be discarded at the end of the day. 

But after that initial reaction, he acknowledged that those lucky vaccine hunters were “in the right place at the right time” and it wasn’t healthy for him to harbor that envious feeling.

“You don’t want to carry it inside of you because it just grows,” Rosenberg says. “Some people are just in the right place at the right time. You need to accept that and go on.”

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Sarah C. Hull, M.D., an associate director of the program for biomedical ethics at the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, agrees, noting that guilt often comes from concerns about equity. But she says guilt isn’t always warranted.

“As long as [people] are being honest and working within whatever system is implemented ... they shouldn’t feel guilty,” Hull says. “On the contrary, they’re stepping up and getting vaccinated, which is essential to getting this pandemic under control.”

It’s hard not to be envious of people who have scored a coveted vaccine appointment or have “lucked” into getting a shot that would have otherwise been discarded.

Linda Lou, 66, of New York City, said that despite multiple health conditions that make her 64-year-old husband vulnerable to the virus, their efforts to get him a vaccination appointment has been a challenge. Lou is envious of those who receive the vaccine but strives to replace those feelings with happiness at her friends’ good fortune.

Still, a fair bit of frustration flares when friends brag about how easy it was to make an appointment, although they know she and her husband have struggled to do so despite repeated attempts.

“I find that although I am glad that they got it, my perception of them has changed a bit,” she says. “Not only did they not call to let us know where there was availability, but they also don’t realize how it makes us feel left out and a bit like ‘losers,’ as we are still in maximum danger of a deadly virus.”

Rosenberg says that while it may be natural for emotions to bubble up, it’s important not to fixate on them.

“Envy is a natural instinct, but it’s not a positive feeling,” Rosenberg says. “If you ruminate on it, you just create more. It builds up and that is negative. The best thing to do is let it go, try to live in the moment.”

Nancy Dunham is a contributing writer who covers automotive issues, home improvement and healthcare. Previously she served as a reporter and editor for several daily metropolitan newspapers. Her work has also appeared in People Magazine, The Washington Post, USA Today and U.S. News & World Report.

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