California halts system of shared vaccine codes after misuse

California is revamping its plan to help essential workers and seniors in underserved communities get coronavirus vaccinations after officials learned that appointment access codes were leaked to people who were not eligible for the shots.

The move comes as the state of 40 million people is striving to prioritize vaccinating the most vulnerable, including low-income, Latino and Black residents who have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic, as well as essential workers.

Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said Wednesday that the state provided general access codes to about 1,000 community groups so they could sign up residents for reserved doses at federally funded vaccination sites that opened last week in Los Angeles and Oakland.

But these group codes were shared over email and passed on, leading some people to sign up for shots who were not eligible because of their age or occupation. In one instance, outsiders showed up at a predominantly Latino public housing community for vaccinations being provided by a mobile unit sent from the Los Angeles site, he said.

"We’re going to go away from group codes to individual codes," Gov. Gavin Newsom said this week. "We don’t like to see those abuses."

Ferguson said state officials don’t know how many people used codes who shouldn’t have, but when groups such as churches and adult daycare centers notified officials they could no longer schedule their members for vaccinations because slots were filled up, appointments made under those codes were canceled and new ones entered manually. The state will start issuing individual codes to community groups next week, he said.

California has administered 7.8 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine, more than half of them to people age 65 and over. With the demand for the shots outstripping the supply, many experts have raised concerns that some of the state’s most vulnerable residents could be crowded out by more affluent Californians who are internet savvy and can afford to spend time navigating web portals and waiting in line for appointments.

State officials believe only a small percentage of appointments were mistakenly made with the codes and that most people didn’t intentionally misuse them, Ferguson said.

The Los Angeles Times reported this week that several people told the newspaper they called a state hotline to verify the codes were legitimate and were not given clarifying information about who they were intended for. Bryce Schramm, a 31-year-old who works in the entertainment business, said he managed to get an appointment he later canceled after reading the newspaper’s report about the misused codes.

Blanca Gallegos, a spokesperson for SEIU Local 99, said her union reached out to child care and school district warehouse workers with state-issued access codes last week, and said some members said they did get the shots.

Alejandra Valles, secretary-treasurer for United Service Workers West, said the union is hosting a vaccination clinic in Los Angeles this week with help from federal officials. The union was provided 1,000 doses for airport workers, janitors and others, with individual codes used to make appointments for them on the state’s My Turn website, she said. The codes aren’t shared, and the union prescreens members when they arrive for their shots.

"We have not had anybody crashing" the vaccination site, she said. "We have not had that, and that’s because we have not shared any of the codes."


Associated Press writer Janie Har in San Francisco contributed to this report.