In Germany, an early vaccine shot comes with disapproving looks

After vaccinations began in Germany in December, a new word, “Impfneid,” or vaccine envy, entered the lexicon. Impfneid or no, the widespread disdain for people who try got get a shot before their time has damaged more than just reputations.

When a young woman showed up at Hamburg’s giant COVID vaccination site last week, the city officials who check whether people are eligible were skeptical.

She was in her mid 20s; shots are being given mainly to those 60 and older. But she said she qualified for an exemption because she was caring for her infirm mother and produced a form to make her case. Without a signature from her mother, the form was invalid and the officials turned her away. But she returned quickly, a little too quickly, with the document signed.

This time she claimed to have a sister who was vaccinated for the same reason, but a spot check of inoculation records showed that to be false as well.

“She could not get out of here fast enough,” said Martin Helfrich, a spokesman for the city who witnessed the scene.

Officials at the center have become adept at spotting people who are trying the most un-German of activities: cutting in line. At state-run sites like the one in Hamburg, those older than 60, those with preexisting conditions and front line workers are allowed to get shots. But officials at the Hamburg center recently reported that roughly 2,000 ineligible people had sought shots in just one week, either because they did not understand the rules — or were trying to cheat.

In a country that prides itself on keeping order, the news was shocking enough to make national headlines.

Even Chancellor Angela Merkel waited her turn. She was vaccinated in April and only once people of her age bracket — she is 66 — were eligible. Ugur Sahin, the 55-year-old chief executive of BioNTech, the German company that designed the Pfizer vaccine, has said he will also wait his turn.

After a slow start, Germany’s vaccine program is gaining steam, and federal lawmakers have granted new freedoms for the fully vaccinated (as of Wednesday, just under 12% of the population), including the right to meet with other inoculated people, shop and travel without testing or quarantining. The move was a clear incentive for Germans who are hoping for a more normal summer (in 2019 Germans took 52 million vacations longer than four days abroad; in 2020 it was only 28 million). But officials say it might also have been a prompt for some to try and get around the priority rules.

“Not everyone is putting real criminal energy into this,” Helfrich said. “Some are simply misinformed; others want to give it a try but give up fairly quickly; only very few actually do things like fake documents.”

While most states do not keep or publish the numbers of people rejected from their vaccinations, Hamburg decided to go to public in the hopes of dissuading further attempts.

After vaccinations began in Germany in December, a new word, “Impfneid,” or vaccine envy, entered the lexicon. Germans have watched as vaccine drives in the United States have opened to all people older than 12, and as Britain, also a line-oriented country, has managed to meticulously vaccinate millions of people.

Impfneid or no, the widespread disdain for people who try got get a shot before their time has damaged more than just reputations. The 64-year-old mayor of Halle, a city of 240,000 in eastern Germany, was suspended after it was revealed that he got a leftover dose back in January when only those older than 79 or in medical fields had to the right to a shot.

The country now boasts that it has a first-shot rate of 38% — one of the top rates in the European Union, and this week, the government announced that as of June 7, priority lists will be a thing of the past in Germany. But the program generally has been plagued by hiccups, delays and confusion.

Germany vacillated over the AstraZeneca vaccine for months over a risk of rare blood clots, but earlier this month the country made that shot available to anyone older than 18, as long as they acknowledged the risk.

As it turned out, that set off a new race to get shots, this time wholly within the rules.

Most state-run centers, like the one in Hamburg, decided against using AstraZeneca because of people’s worries about the rare clots. But local doctors could offer the shot. Now, doctors are complaining of increasingly aggressive behavior by those looking for a dose.

Shahak Shapira, 33, a comedian, documented his quest to get an AstraZeneca vaccination from a local doctor. He called the adventure AstraZenecaGo, because of its similarity to the popular augmented reality geolocation game Pokemon Go.

Xenia Balzereit, 29, a Berlin journalist, wrote about her lack of shame in taking the initiative to get herself vaccinated with AstraZeneca, the government’s handling of which led to widespread confusion.

“Honestly, my guilty conscience was worse when I cut in line at Berghain in pre-pandemic times,” she wrote, referring to Berlin’s most famous club.

Family doctors, who started vaccinating in April, have also had much more leeway over whom they choose to vaccinate and why. On Monday, both Berlin and the western state of Baden-Württemberg officially dropped vaccine prioritization lists for shots administered by doctors.

But at Hamburg’s vaccine center — the biggest in Germany — priority lists are still in place and enforced.

Kai Pawlik, 43, a coordinator at the vaccine center, says cheats are often easily found out.

Pawlik, who often has to deal with the less clear-cut cases, says he understands that some people are so desperate to get the shot that they might misrepresent or pretend to misunderstand the rules.

“And on the other hand, of course, there are people who quite brazenly try to take advantage of a system and get ahead,” he said. “And then my sympathy is quite limited.”

Björn Eggers, a 43-year old police officer, who like many other front line workers is already eligible, came for his second shot Friday. He was not impressed with the idea of line jumpers.

“If everyone tried to do it,” he said, “we’d have absolute chaos.”

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