The CDC's Rules Let Teachers, Lawyers, Media Jump to the Front of the COVID Vaccine Line

It turns out that there is a mechanism in capitalism for allocating scarce goods. It is called a "price."


Education sector "support staff members," corporate tax lawyers, and magazine fashion editors will all jump to the front of the coronavirus vaccination line ahead of the general population, under recommendations issued in late December by the federal government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Self-interest dictates I should probably wait until after I get my immunity-producing doses before raising any questions about the prioritization. The government's allocation strategy is such an inviting target, though, that it's hard to resist taking, er, a shot.

How did we get here? On December 20, a government committee of highly educated, mostly academic experts known as the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted about who should get the vaccine first. The committee has 15 voting members. Twelve of them are medical doctors. One is a lawyer. Nine—a majority—are affiliated with universities, including Stanford, Vanderbilt, Baylor, and the University of California, Los Angeles.

Naturally, the committee of doctors decided that the first vaccines should go to healthcare workers. That might seem like common sense—emergency room or intensive care doctors treating Covid-19 patients deserve to be protected against the risk of catching the disease in the workplace. Healthcare workers, though, is a big, catchall category. It includes everyone from Beverly Hills plastic surgeons conducting elective cosmetic surgery to "administrative staff," which might be the billing clerk in the plastic surgery practice, or some hospital accounts-receivable bookkeeper or fundraiser with no patient contact.

"Healthcare personnel" are in the CDC's phase 1a. Educational sector support staff are next in phase 1b. That could include people who are currently working from home and who ordinarily have little or no direct contact with students—say, the employees who answer telephone questions about retired professors' pension benefits.

The next phase, 1c, encompasses the "media" and "law" categories. Like healthcare personnel, these groups are so broad that they include essential frontline workers but also some others whose prioritization is difficult to justify.

Journalists covering the pandemic by doing on-the-scene reporting from nursing homes or hospital intensive care units probably do have a strong case to be vaccinated relatively early. So do criminal defense lawyers meeting clients in prisons or jails, or making frequent in-person courtroom appearances.

The "media" and "law" categories, though, also include the copyeditors at Vogue and the big-firm lawyers who rarely show up in court but spend their time instead writing memos and helping companies minimize their taxes. Their Covid-19 risk seems pretty small, or at least small enough that it's hard to see the rationale for those workers leapfrogging ahead of the general population.

A cynic might suspect the vaccine committee put lawyers and journalists early in the queue as a way to avoid getting sued or attracting negative press coverage.

It turns out that there is a mechanism in capitalism for allocating scarce goods. It works pretty well—better than allowing a government-appointed committee to decide who gets what when. It is called "price."

When sellers are free to adjust prices upward to meet demand, scare goods wind up in the hands of those who value them most. If a coronavirus vaccine dose cost $1,000 or $2,000 instead of "free" or "$20," a hospital might decide that it is worth vaccinating the intensive care nurses immediately. At that price, the same hospital might decide to wait for a while before vaccinating the accounts-receivable bookkeeper.

Some worry that under a free market approach like this, the Beverly Hills plastic surgery billing clerks and corporate tax lawyers will get vaccinated before the emergency room doctors in inner-city hospitals or public defenders visiting clients in jail. That's a reasonable concern, but it's better addressed by targeted subsidies than by a total suspension of the price mechanism in favor of broad-brush categories like "law" or "media."

A nice thing about temporarily high prices—whether for a Tesla or an iPhone or a Manhattan apartment—is that they tend to spur production, either of that product or of close substitutes.

The coronavirus vaccine was created by a combination of private-sector ingenuity at Pfizer and Moderna and government spending and planning at Operation Warp Speed. The Trump administration has showed openness to using commercial vendors such as CVS and McKesson to administer and distribute the vaccine. Letting a committee of academic physicians rather than a market decide who gets the shot first is a departure from the private sector-led approach that has driven America's success so far.

It may seem like the most important thing America has to give the rest of the world right now is the vaccine. An even more valuable export, though, would be confidence that free markets and capitalism work better than communism, cronyism, and state-run central planning. It might mean journalists or lawyers wait a week or two longer for this vaccine.

The net long-term result, though, would be that more shots and goods of all sorts wind up faster in the arms of those who can use them best.

NEXT: Newly Recorded COVID-19 Cases and Deaths Are Falling in the U.S.

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  1. >lawyers and media
    If there is a group of people that need to have a higher mortality rate, it is those two groups.

    1. As Britney Shakespears said, “The first thing we do, let’s guinea pig all the lawyers.”

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      2. No, that was Madonna whose shaking spears could have put an eye out.

  2. “…it’s better addressed by targeted subsidies…”

    Never hoped to see that in a libertarian magazine.

    1. It gave me a sad.

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    2. Arguably, less-bad than quotas.

    3. Luckily you still haven’t.

    4. “Never hoped to see that in a libertarian magazine.”

      This is an ostensibly libertarian magazine. It hasn’t been an actual libertarian magazine for almost two decades.

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  3. I still think that if we are going to allocate vaccines, it should be based on how many people they are likely to infect without the vaccine. So:

    1. Don’t give it to people that have already been infected. They very likely already have immunity. I can’t believe we aren’t doing that… Do a really good job and require a immunity test (at least antibody, ideally T-cell) before giving them a vaccine.
    2. Give it to people with large households. The majority of people are infected in their home. The 5% largest households would get most of the super spreaders.
    3. Like Ron Bailey pointed out, give a single dose. It is almost as effective and it allows twice as many people to be vaccinated.
    4. There is probably some smart ways to geographically allocate vaccines to areas that are likely to have flare ups.

    With those rules, I bet we could be done with this in two months and we can all go back to our lives.

    1. SleepyJoe will personally allocate the vaccine in the most equitable way possible.

      1. It seems to me, that you’re telling us that SleepyJoe can be all things to all people.

        Riddle me this: Can SleepyJoe bound over tall buildings in a single bound? Can SleepyJoe stop a speeding locomotive?

        1. He can do all those things, as long as his handlers don’t call an early lid on the day.
          SleepyJoe needs naps sometimes.

        2. Sleepy is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
          He also sees everything in black and white.

          1. No, pretty sure those Matlock reruns are in color.

    2. >>They very likely already have immunity.

      you’d think so, but today’s scare tactic is IT MUTATES!

    3. Oldest first has the virtue of being simple and actually lowering the death rate as well as ICU and hospital utilization rates.

      1. The oldest can’t get infected if there is no one else that has it. There are a lot fewer households with 5 or more people than there are people over 60. Plus, they do not have as many risks of side effects and the rest of us, not just the elderly, can resume our lives.

        Oldest is only an approximation of health risk. Plenty of old people are healthy enough and plenty of young people are high risk. We know what the comorbidities are. If we limited it to people with 2 (maybe 3) or more high risk comorbidities, that might be reasonable.

        Plus, we aren’t doing oldest first. We are doing oldest, and a bunch of other people that are not vulnerable (and even many that already have immunity) first.

        1. “…if there is no one else that has it.”

          “If” and “no one” are really fucking huge words. Especially when used in conjunction.

  4. This principle seems misapplied. If the immediate goal is economic efficiency, then allocation based on price works. But the immediate goal here is public health, one not only not served directly by high, demand-driven prices, but almost certainly frustrated by them.

    1. You don’t know much about markets and prices, do you? Scarce items always have to be rationed and allocated. Do you really think bureaucrats have enough information to do that optimally?

      Allocating by price tells everyone very clearly that these things are precious. Rich people with no conscience will buy them outright. Politicians with no conscience (but I repeat myself) will grab them outright. But allocation by price alone allows other people to join in, regardless of corrupt connections, while allocation by corrupt politicians is determined solely by corrupt connections.

      Your method only works if the central planners have perfect knowledge and perfect self-control. Comparing the greed of rich people in markets to unicorns is a typical excuse for those who hate markets and prices.

    2. The day – MY health became “public health”?

  5. As someone whose not exactly eager to be a guinea pig for vaccines rushed through the approval process, I’m perfectly happy to chill out while society’s parasites test this thing out in advance.

    Thanks guys!

    1. But what if one of the side-effects is to turn people into raging sociopaths?

      We wouldn’t be able to tell the difference with the journalists and lawyers, so the side effects would go undetected until some other group gets the vaccine.

  6. “Why is the vaccine labeled “fentonal?”
    “that’s just a mussprint feel free to give all lawyers and media people 6 or 7 doses all at ones for extra protection”

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  8. “When sellers are free to adjust prices upward to meet demand, scare goods wind up in the hands of those who value them most. ”

    The important phrase missing – “other things being equal”.

    Reason is stating that poor people who cannot afford expensive goods are never in need of needing them the most !
    How stupid can you be ?

    1. “Those ‘useless’ member of society who take, take, and keep taking MORE than they produce for their fellow man (i.e. poor) should have MORE right to the product of man than the man who provides for his fellow man!!!!”, screams every left-wing nut.

      How *entitled* to what they haven’t *earned* can they be? Do they think *entitlement* magically creates and distributes produce or what?

      How stupid can they be?

  9. “It turns out that there is a mechanism in capitalism for allocating scarce goods. It is called a ‘price.'”

    Communist America hasn’t acknowledged that reality in Decades… In today’s communist America it’s all about who can create the biggest “cry the hardest” lobby and get entitled by the Gov-Gods and their almighty power of gov-guns.

    1. Should have allocated the shots to FRONT-LINE WORKERS rather than the people who cut to the FRONT OF THE LINE!

      1. Amazon, Walmart, Pharmacy, CVS, Walgreens, IRS, traffic cop, HOSPITAL, prison, restaurant, and retail employees who keep goods on the shelf and money flowing.
      2. Truck drivers, ambulance, mass transit, police station, FAA, FBI, CIA, DMV, Navy, Coast Guard, Army Corps, airport, airline, and others who keep the wheels turning of commerce and transportation.
      3. People eligible for Medicare or VA.
      There is no reason for lawyers, media, or generic healthcare workers as a group to get the vaccine first. It has more to do with where and how you work. The Legislature and bureaucrats outside the IRS don’t do much. I wouldn’t miss anyone that wasn’t sending out a refund check! (At least not for 2 weeks off with pay.)

      My problem with the “price” as a deterrent to excess demand, I just can’t wrap my head around who is paying for it. Maybe start your piece there. Where is the money going to come from? When a rich mediate shows up in the shot line, how much does he pay for it? The last I looked at healthcare policies is that a bunch of things are not covered by insurance … a pandemic may be one of them.

  10. That feel when you are starting to wonder if literal China is a more capitalist country than America.

  11. There’s way too much squawking about teachers needing to return to the classroom. My wife is a special education teacher who is ready and willing to return to the classroom as soon as she’s vaccinated. As far as teacher salaries and benefits well you could become a teacher too. My wife has a BA, MA and post Master’s degree. Then she had to pass four NTE exams. Stop the jealousy get off your ass and you too can earn amazing money with amazing benefits.

  12. Everyone is missing the point. Why do we inoculate x number of people for 95% immunity with two shots instead of inoculating 2x number of people for 70% immunity with one shot?

    If availability of the vaccine is the only restriction, spread what you have to do the most good!

  13. I will gladly be person number 7,817,346,678 in line. I will head to the medical center to grab one of those white ticket things with your number on it in about 5 years. This is beyond stupid…fighting over a fake vaccine for a fake pandemic.

  14. The Government Class, both actual government actors and those who live and prosper predominately by their favor, is the aristocracy reborn. Too many do not understand that the old aristocracy’s, like that of today’s Government Class neo-aristocracy, wealth and privilege came from their government power not their government power from their wealth and privilege.

    Of course they will jump to the front of the vaccine line and every other line as long as we let them create those lines.

  15. The difficulty with this logic is that being infected has external costs which are not internalized. Insurance companies pay for treatment, and people an infected person infects can’t bill the person who infected them for their costs. As a consequence, the price people are willing to pay to get vaccinated bears little resemblance to the actual societal benefit.

    I’m not sure how to solve this, but saying “let waiters pay for their own vaccines which they can never begin to afford muahaha even though they’ll work while near-death sick and have high contact rates” doesn’t sound right.

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