Imagine you’re outside Walmart on the eve of Black Friday. Like many of your fellow bargain hunters, you’ve been there for hours already, intent on being one of the first shoppers to get inside once the doors open.

Everyone has been well behaved, but as the clock inches closer to midnight, people crowd the entrance. Then, as a worker arrives to unlock the door, the mass surges forward. Elbows fly. Expletives fill the air. A few people fall and try not to get trampled.

Which brings us to the COVID-19 vaccination rollout.

In recent weeks, my inbox has pinged repeatedly with emails from folks eager, in one way or another, to air a complaint about vaccines.

Some want to report line jumpers – those privileged few who, through this or that inside connection, have managed to get vaccinated far ahead of their turn in the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s pecking order. Others, still way back in line, simply seek a way to get more quickly to the front.

One woman, a cancer patient in her 80s, wrote a few weeks ago of a friend whose son, healthy and in his 40s, somehow managed to get vaccinated while accompanying his parents to get their shots at a local pharmacy.

“That was a huge RED LINE for me,” she wrote with palpable anger.

More recently, I received an email from another woman who soon will be eligible for a shot but wanted to pass it on to her chronically ill child. No dice, she was told.

“I’m not trying to be obnoxious. I am not trying to jump the line,” she wrote. “I’m a scared mom. Truly scared.”

Yet another reader wrote to complain that employees of a major private company in southern Maine were being offered vaccines as an enticement to volunteer at mass-vaccination sites. A company spokesperson later told me that wasn’t true – if there are leftover vaccines at the end of the day, she explained, they will be offered to volunteers rather than go to waste.

At the root of all this lies fear. Fear of getting sick and going down just as the finish line to this awful pandemic appears on the distant horizon. Fear that a medically compromised loved one might perish while a perfectly fit, stay-at-home health care worker benefits from working at the right place at the right time. Fear that somewhere out there, someone’s cutting the line while the rest of us wait our turn. Case in point: Two women in Florida – one 33, the other 44 – who managed to get vaccinated after disguising themselves as grandmothers.

How do we maintain order as Maine’s vaccination program, now in Phase 1B, plods its way down the new social pecking order from the oldest to the almost oldest to the sick to the essential to those “not otherwise eligible” in earlier phases, as the Maine CDC website describes the catch-all Phase 2?

What are we to make of Maine’s most notorious cases of line jumping? They include Maine Medical Center’s astoundingly poor decision to vaccine 10 out-of-state consultants called in last month to thwart a unionization drive by the Portland hospital’s nurses, and Augusta-based MaineGeneral Health’s invitation to select donors and retired employees to come in for vaccines before people over 70 could begin making appointments.

One answer is to crack down, however belatedly, on such transgressions. Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey did just that last week when, echoing earlier remarks by Gov. Janet Mills, he warned of “legal and administrative sanctions against providers who administer the COVID-19 vaccine to persons who do not meet applicable eligibility criteria.”

“We’re going to be paying attention so that providers and the public have confidence that we’re going to be doing this right,” Frey reiterated Wednesday on Maine Public’s “Maine Calling” program.

The other answer is to look at ourselves. Harking back to the Black Friday scenario, how many times have we watched otherwise civil people get into wrestling matches over a big-screen TV or the latest video gaming device, only to realize later (maybe before a judge) how embarrassingly they’d behaved?

Last week’s “Maine Calling” program, which focused on the ethics of COVID-19 distribution, included Jessica Miller, a bioethicist and professor of philosophy at the University of Maine. Miller spoke eloquently about four principles that have underpinned policy decisions on COVD-19 vaccination programs: maximizing benefits and minimizing harm for the overall population, promoting justice to ensure that the distribution of vaccines is fair, mitigating health inequities to address barriers people face in trying to get vaccinated, and promoting transparency to help build trust in the vaccination decision-making process.

All worthy objectives, to be sure. But what about the line jumpers? And what about the rest of us who dutifully wait our turn, only to watch in dismay and anger while someone else climbs over us, rules be damned, to get that coveted shot?

Miller, in an email Friday, noted that perception is part of the problem as various states adopt different protocols for parceling out their vaccines.

Thus, she noted, “your friend in a neighboring state may already have their second vaccine dose while you are waiting for your first. There is a lot of misinformation out there, thanks to a social climate where trust in institutions like the media, organized health care, and the government is in decline.”

As for those who actually do cheat the system, Miller said, they not only endanger people worse off than themselves but also “put a greater burden on our health care system at the time we can least afford it.”

Meaning, health providers must double down on time-consuming verification processes to weed out the line jumpers rather than focus on dispensing vaccines to the truly eligible. At the same time, Miller observed, line jumpers only exacerbate the inequities already embedded in our health care system – as with Black and Latino communities whose vaccine allocations fall far short of their COVID-19 case and mortality counts.

Try telling all of that to those whose concern begins and ends with themselves. Picture the guy who, in his quest for that Walmart TV, bowls over a grandmother who’s there only to buy a hard-to-find toy for her young grandchild.

To that type, Miller has a simpler message.

“People should ask themselves whether they think line jumping is fair when it happens to them or their loved ones,” she suggested. “If not, then what exactly gives them the right to do it to others?”

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