LOS ANGELES -- While the nation continues to see record levels of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, wealthy patients in Southern California -- the epicenter of the state's COVID-19 crisis -- are offering to pay top dollar to cut the line and be among the first to receive a vaccine.
At a number of concierge medical practices in Southern California, doctors say they've received calls from their well-off clients asking if they can have early access to the extremely limited supply of vaccine doses in exchange for a financial contribution to a hospital or charity.
Dr. Jeff Toll, whose boutique internal medicine practice has admitting privileges at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said one patient offered to donate $25,000 to the hospital in exchange for an early shot of the vaccine. Toll's practice services a well-heeled clientele that includes chief executives and entertainment figures, but the doctor said he is telling his patients they too must wait as the first round of vaccines are distributed to those most in need of protection.
Earlier this week, California received 327,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, administering the first shots to front line health care workers battling the virus that has caused more than 22,000 deaths statewide since the start of the pandemic.
"I think one of the difficult things is for physicians who take care of these high-power people to be able to say, no you have to wait," Toll said. "These people don't usually have to wait."
Toll said his practice has applied with the state of California to become a vaccine distribution center for his clients and has already purchased special ultra-cold freezers in anticipation of storing vials of the Pfizer vaccine.
'They wanted it yesterday'
Dr. David Nazarian, of My Concierge MD in Beverly Hills, said a number of his A-list clients are contacting him, saying that money is no object if it helps them get the vaccine early.
"They wanted it yesterday," said Nazarian. "We will play by the rules but are doing everything we can to secure and distribute the vaccine when its available to us."
Southern California has in recent weeks seen an unprecedented surge of new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, with hospital intensive care bed capacity plunging to 0% and health officials issuing dire warnings if the virus continues to spread out of control.
The founder of Concierge MD LA, Dr. Abe Malkin, said he's received over a hundred phone calls from people trying to get early access to the initial doses.
"I'd say that 5 to 10 percent of those were willing to try to make some contribution to a charity to get themselves bumped up in line," according to Malkin.
Malkin's practice has also applied to become a vaccine distributor but is focusing on the newly FDA-authorized Moderna vaccine, which will be easier to handle because it doesn't have the same extreme temperature storage requirements as the Pfizer doses.
When it comes cutting in line, Gov. Gavin Newsom has warned the state will be "very aggressive in making sure that those with means, those with influence, are not crowding out those that are most deserving of the vaccines."
"To those that think they can get ahead of the line, and those that think because they have resources, or they have relationships that will allow them to do it. We will be monitoring that very, very, closely," Newsom said this month.
"We will prioritize, and we will expect that everyone in the health care delivery system is held to the same ethical standard of prioritizing truly, those that are most in need. And the real heroes in this pandemic are front line health care workers, and those are the folks that we must protect, and we must prioritize moving forward."