"It's the Hunger Games out there": Wealthy Californians try to jump the line for COVID-19 vaccinations

The federal government distributes COVID-19 vaccines to states and the states work their own programs to get the vaccines into the arms of people. One problem in vaccinating people is that of wealthy and well-connected people trying to jump the line and get a shot before it is their time to do so. California is experiencing plenty of problems in dealing with coronavirus hot spots and getting the vaccines to its residents. The pampered, self-indulgent folks in show biz aren’t helping the situation.

In California, health care workers and residents age 65 and older are eligible for a coronavirus vaccination. The rollout of this plan has been criticized as slow, as in other states, but in California, Hollywood titans and those well-connected are pulling out the stops to get themselves vaccinated. One music industry mogul is reported to be facilitating vaccinations for those close to him. While some of their efforts are not breaking any laws, it certainly calls into question the ethics and decision-making process of those involved.

Music industry legend Irving Azoff is among those who recently obtained a vaccine, around the time in mid-January when Los Angeles County expanded access to the shots for citizens 65 and older, a new tier that previously only prioritized healthcare workers and those over 75. These expanded inoculations were not available at LA-area testing sites like Dodgers Stadium or concert venue The Forum until Tuesday of last week. While sources said Azoff was facilitating vaccines for those in his sphere of influence, he only confirmed his own inoculation.

“I’m a 73-year-old cancer survivor. I recently had part of my intestine removed. Damn right I received the vaccine, and I’m glad I did. Everyone eligible should get vaccinated as soon as they can,” Azoff told Variety.

Azoff is said by sources to be among several notable figures recommended to Dr. Robert Bray, a neurological spine surgeon whose specialty practice is based in Newport Beach, Calif. Bray is being referred in power circles by Robert Goldstein, sources said, the acting chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, which owns Las Vegas’ Venetian Hotel and similar properties in Macau.

Goldstein has not issued a statement and Dr. Bray acknowledges knowing Goldstein but denies he is working as a private medical concierge. He said he works within the California tier system and his practice was allotted 200 vaccinations from the state. He offers vaccines to healthcare workers and elderly patients first, then any extra doses are given at the practice’s discretion.

As in other states, California is experiencing a shortage in vaccine supplies. Los Angeles County has one of the lowest immunization rates in the U.S. Doctors are being offered bribes. One doctor in the entertainment industry says he doesn’t blame them for doing all they can for a vaccination. One top entertainment industry executive said, “It’s ‘The Hunger Games’ out there.” One former CEO of Golden Globes telecast producer Dick Clark Productions flew his private jet to Florida to get a vaccination because he said he owns land in that state.

Not all are content to navigate California’s byzantine vaccination process. Allen Shapiro, the 73-year-old former CEO of Golden Globes telecast producer Dick Clark Productions, was reported last week to have flown via private jet to Florida recently in search of the vaccine with friends. Sources tell Variety that Shapiro did fly private — but alone — to Miami. While some reports have decried this as an example of vaccine tourism, insiders said Shapiro owns property and conducts business in Florida. Moreover, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was openly inviting the 65-and-older crowd this month to enjoy his state’s robust vaccine program without a need to verify residency. Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees has subsequently overturned Gov. DeSantis’ open-door policy, requiring all Floridians to provide proof of residency in order to receive the vaccine. Former Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons, 72, also recently spoke on the record about heading to Florida from New York to get his vaccine, citing the state’s efficiency. Others are said to be flocking to Hawaiian island of Maui.

Then there is the story of a Canadian gambling mogul and his actress wife who posed as motel workers to jump the vaccination line meant for Indigenous residents of a remote Yukon community. They chartered a plane to the small community of Beaver Creek to receive doses of the Moderna vaccine. They didn’t even bother to abide by quarantine rules of self-isolating for 14 days when they arrived in Beaver Creek.

Rodney Baker, a 55-year-old who was then president and CEO of the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, and Ekaterina Baker, a 32-year-old aspiring actress, both received tickets at the Whitehorse airport on Jan. 21, according to court records. Rodney Baker resigned from his positions Sunday.

Yukon Community Services Minister John Streicker told CBC Monday the couple arrived in Whitehorse on Jan. 19. However, instead of completing a mandatory 14-day self-isolation period, the Bakers on Jan. 21 chartered a flight to Beaver Creek, a community of about 100 people that is located roughly 450 kilometres northwest of Whitehorse near the Alaska border.

There, according to Streicker, they took advantage of a mobile vaccination clinic that was administering the first doses of the Moderna vaccine to locals, claiming they were new employees at an area motel.

Yukon’s rural communities have priority to receive vaccinations because they’re more vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19. Many are hours away from a hospital and lack the resources to address an outbreak.

The Civil Emergency Measures Act (CEMA) enforcement unit is looking into this case. Baker and his wife are facing legal troubles over their actions.

CEMA officers were able to identify the couple via their entry declaration forms — everyone who enters Yukon from another jurisdiction is required to fill one out — and went to the Whitehorse airport, where the couple’s chartered plane had returned from Beaver Creek.

After going to the hotel where the two were supposed to be self-isolating, CEMA officers found they’d already checked out. The officers returned to the airport and located the couple as they were getting ready to leave the territory, Streicker said.

The tickets list the Bakers as sharing an address in downtown Vancouver, although social media posts appear to indicate that they split their time between B.C. and Toronto.

CEMA violations come with a maximum penalty of a $500 fine plus a $75 victim surcharge per count, six months’ jail or both. The couple has 30 days to either pay their fines — a total of $2,300 for all four counts they’re facing — or plead not guilty and request a trial.

Canadian officials say they are shocked that the couple went to such lengths to cheat the system and the people that the vaccines were meant for in that small community. I don’t think anyone is saying that in California, though.