[Full Story] How did the false claims in texts, emails led to the misuse of vaccine codes?

In Los Angeles, the rumor spread like wildfire through group texts and email chains: The government was testing the appointment system at a new COVID-19 vaccination site at Cal State L.A., and you could help by using a special access code to sign up for a shot.In the Bay Area, the gossip took a slightly different form: Doses at the Oakland Coliseum were about to expire, and you could do your part by making an appointment, again, with a special access code.

The problem, of course, was that none of this was true. There were no expiring doses at the Oakland Coliseum earmarked for use with special codes, and the Cal State L.A. site had no appointment testing program.

The access codes ping-ponging across two of California’s largest metropolitan areas were actually a key part of a program designed to help get lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines into California neighborhoods hit hardest by the pandemic. Intended to address inequities in the distribution of the vaccine, the program instead was being misused — often unwittingly — by people far outside the intended communities.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday that California would be making changes to the program following the Times report about the abuses.The loophole sprang from special access codes that allowed users to book appointments through the state’s vaccine registration system, called My Turn. State officials asked community groups — among them nonprofits, faith-based groups, labor unions — to circulate the codes to their members for appointments at the sites in Oakland and L.A.

But those codes also began circulating in emails and group texts among the wealthier, work-from-home set in Los Angeles who are not yet eligible for the vaccine. Many were younger than 65, and said they didn’t know they were taking slots meant for others. The codes’ intended purpose was not spelled out on the My Turn website.

During a mobile vaccination clinic at the Ramona Gardens public housing development on Sunday in Boyle Heights, it was “pretty clear” that “not everyone was from that community,” Newsom said later.

“We don’t like to see those abuses,” Newsom said at a Tuesday news conference in Sacramento.

It’s unclear how many shots have been misappropriated, and Newsom did not provide details on what changes would be made to the program, other than to say the state would move away from the group access codes.

Many people who used the access codes said they didn’t know they were doing anything wrong, and said they would not have signed up if they had known the codes had been earmarked for more vulnerable residents. Several said they regretted getting vaccinated.

When Bryce Schramm’s phone pinged Monday afternoon with a text message about a special code to book a vaccine appointment, the 31-year-old was skeptical. He thought it sounded “sketchy,” at best. But then he received a second code a few minutes later, this time in an email that specified that the vaccine site was testing their appointment booking system.

“Every step of the way, I kept being like, ‘I’m going to get weeded out,’” the Los Angeles resident recalled. He couldn’t believe his luck when he was able to book an appointment for the very next day.

But he wanted to make sure he wasn’t doing anything wrong, so he called the state COVID-19 hotline number listed at the bottom of his confirmation email.

Even after he told a woman who answered the hotline that he was 31 and worked in the entertainment business, she OK’d the appointment, Schramm said. According to Schramm, she seemed confused about how the access codes were intended to be used. Three other people told The Times they called the hotline to verify the legitimacy of the codes and were not given any clarifying information.

Schramm canceled his appointment later that night after reading the Times report, horrified by what he had almost done, despite trying to be as diligent as possible.

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