The University of Rochester Medical Center’s chief fundraiser told staff in an email that “major donors” to the hospital system who asked for vaccines could be given special consideration and leapfrog the inoculation queue by being shunted into what she called a “special patient services vaccine clinic.”
A URMC spokesperson said the email was sent in error.
The email from Kellie Anderson to her staff, dated Jan. 12, outlined the process.
“Some of you may have received emails or phone calls from donors who would like to receive a COVID vaccine at URMC,” Anderson’s message began. It went on to instruct staff not to reach out to donors, but to field requests and pass them along. Some donors would receive the vaccines later that week.
Anderson clarified that only donors eligible for the vaccine — such as those who are 65 or older — would be considered for the upcoming clinic. In order to be considered, donors had to prove they were eligible and explain why they should get special attention. One of the acceptable reasons was that they were a “major donor.”
She warned that some donors might not make the cut.
The email explained that the special vaccine administration would be overseen by Laurie Kopin, a senior nurse practitioner who was described as overseeing URMC’s Special Patient Services. “Laurie’s team has a limited supply of vaccine and she already has a list of Executive Health clients and high level donors she will be vaccinating, many of whom she has already contacted,” the email read.
That Thursday and Friday, 26 patients from the Executive Health program received their shots at URMC. Some of those patients were donors. URMC has not confirmed how many donors were vaccinated that week.
URMC spokesperson Chip Partner told WXXI News that Anderson’s email was made in error, and that the medical center does not offer special vaccine opportunities to donors.
Partner said that of the 26 people vaccinated from the Executive Health Program, “It’s certain that some of the people vaccinated were donors. Some were board members. Board members are all donors at some level. But no one received priority scheduling because they were a donor. Anyone who saw (Anderson’s) email and didn’t understand what happened would think that donors were prioritized. That is what Kellie’s email said, and it is just wrong.”
Partner said that the Executive Health patients were alerted to a vaccine opportunity along with eligible members of the public, and some were fortunate enough to get registered that week. Although some were donors, Partner said that was not pertinent to their success in getting through the line.
Asked why the chief fundraiser for URMC would tell staff about prioritizing donors if the practice is not allowed at the health system, Partner said: “I don’t really have an answer for that. At that moment in time, nobody knew how vaccination would roll out.”
Partner added that fundraising staff have been told in subsequent communications that donors should not be told they can move to the front of the vaccine line.
This change in tone is reflected in a Jan. 26 email from Kopin to Tom Farrell, the university’s head of fundraising, and Anderson’s boss. Partner provided the email to WXXI.
“I value my relationship greatly with our donors and I do not want to disappoint them,” Kopin wrote, but told Farrell that donors would have to use the same resources as the general public in trying to make appointments. She included information about the newly created online Finger Lakes Vaccine Hub. “We urge everyone to please be patient,” she added.
The news comes as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has continued to express concern about low-income and minority communities being overlooked by the vaccine process. Leaders of the Finger Lakes COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force repeatedly stressed the need for equity, equal vaccine opportunity, and an absence of favoritism. Co-chair Wade Norwood sent a statement to WXXI on Saturday, describing the suggestion that donors would be allowed to jump the line as a “slap in the face” to people who are eligible and who have not yet received inoculations.
URMC joins a growing list of medical centers across the country that have either offered special vaccination opportunities for donors or flirted with the idea. Earlier this month, the Miami Herald reported that at least three hospital systems in South Florida offered vaccines to donors ahead of the general public. In New Jersey, the Hunterdon Medical Center was under fire for allowing about two dozen donors, medical center executives and their relatives to receive vaccines during a phase when only healthcare workers and nursing home residents were eligible. According to the New York Post, a medical center spokesman said vaccines were offered to otherwise ineligible people when there was a risk of doses going to waste. And at the Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue, Washington, administrators admitted the vaccine privileges went not only to big donors, but hospital board members as well. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee rebuked the Overlake Medical Center for its actions, and the center has vowed to change course.
In Monroe County, thousands of eligible patients are still waiting. “It’s not happening,” Cyndi Sherm wrote to WXXI News on Twitter. “No appointments available. My father, 80 years old with cancer, cannot get an appointment. My mother-in-law, 72 with cancer, cannot get an appointment.”
Despite the email from Jan. 12, URMC says its biggest donors will have to endure the same process as well.
This story includes reporting by WXXI executive producer Megan Mack.