When COVID-19 vaccines became available for physicians in December 2020, Howard Green, a Florida dermatologist in his early 60s, waited to hear about his vaccination appointment from a Tenet Healthcare hospital he’s affiliated with. But the call never came. Green wasn’t placed on the high-priority list, despite performing Mohs surgeries, which involve removing microscopic skin cancer growths from the faces of patients while they aren’t wearing masks and breathe directly in the direction of their doctor. Green’s wife, a dentist with no hospital connection, had no way of getting on any lists at all, so they knew they had to take vaccine matters into their own hands.

When Green heard through word of mouth and social media that a different hospital had leftover vaccines from a freezer box of 900, he jumped on the opportunity. “I drove to the hospital 60 miles away and stood in line for five hours to get it,” he says. “My wife had to do the same thing because no dentist got called. And we are both high risk, we both work with patients up close. I operate in the central face, and she does open-mouth aerosolized dental procedures.”

Green and his wife are part of the nationwide physician cohort that vaccination efforts didn’t correctly account for, placing some at the bottom of the list and leaving others out entirely. A number of family physicians, primary care providers and doctors not affiliated with hospitals still have no way of signing up to get immunized.

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“For community physicians who are not affiliated with a hospital, we are seeing this across the country,” says California physician Maryal Concepcion, citing a few colleagues who were passed over. “I was shocked that California Medical Association did not reach out to all its members,” she adds. Neither did the state’s dental association. Concepcion works for Adventist Health, a healthcare system, so she was able to get her shot, even though she is currently on maternity leave. Her husband, a family medicine physician who actively sees patients, got vaccinated too — and it was a relief knowing they’re both protected and can’t infect each other. “But the overall process could’ve been so much better,” she points out. “We could’ve had a national registry of medical professionals, and we would know beforehand who should be on that list.”  

Access to vaccines for physicians became such a sticking point that some hospitals issued a strict gag order precluding their doctors from speaking to journalists about it. One doctor who usually speaks to the media declined to comment for this story, apologizing and citing the gag order.

Physicians who received vaccines spoke about how privileged they felt being able to put their worries behind them and focus on treating patients, while some of their colleagues were still anxiety-ridden. “When I got my vaccine, it was the first time I felt the sense of relief and could be fully present for my patients without thinking of my own vulnerabilities,” says Eric Kutcher, an internal medicine resident at NYU Langone in New York City. He had been working in the ER and ICU since the pandemic began and was concerned about falling ill and bringing the virus home to his partner, a medical student. When Kutcher’s partner and father, a pediatric neurologist in private practice, got their shots three weeks later, coinciding with the day Kutcher received his second dose, they were ready to celebrate. “It was a big 24 hours for my family,” Kutcher says. Private practitioners keep the healthcare system working and must be protected too, he notes. “My hope is that as we continue with the rollout of the vaccines, people who aren’t necessarily affiliated with hospital systems can get the protection they need and deserve.”

That still hasn’t happened for Wisconsin physician Rose Kumar, who wrote an op-ed in MedPage about the apparent impossibility to get on the recipient list for private practitioners in her state. Neither the Wisconsin Medical Society nor the Wisconsin Department of Health Services could tell her how she and her staff could sign up. “Wisconsin healthcare is highly corporatized, so Wisconsin’s private practitioners tend to be invisible,” she says, even though they see COVID patients at their practice, many of whom are asymptomatic or think they have a cold — until the test comes back positive. “It was a big sore void that we were not included in the initial vaccination pool even though we are tier-one providers,” Kumar says. Now her county is starting a survey to gather the “nonaffiliated” providers, but as of this writing, Kumar still hasn’t gotten the vaccine.

Other private practitioners uniformly echo her woes. They comprise about 50% of American doctors, but they feel ignored and overlooked in an effort that’s crucial to public health. “This is a much bigger reveal that corporatized medicine takes priority, and people who are really working to serve the community are not valued,” Kumar says. “Just like the pandemic itself exposed bigger issues underlying our healthcare, this is yet another one.”