By Gaia Pianigiani
Last year, in the worst days of the pandemic in Italy, old people died in record numbers. Now, as the country rolls out its vaccination campaign, national authorities have uncovered a rash of line-cutting by younger people and accused them of depriving the elderly and the most vulnerable of their shots.
The national military police, the Carabinieri, are fielding hundreds of reports of vaccine cheating, including by teenagers and people in their early 20s, and the prime minister has felt compelled to weigh in.
“Stop vaccinating people under 60. Stop vaccinating young people,” Prime Minister Mario Draghi said in a news conference last week.
“How can people in all conscience jump the line?” Mr. Draghi added. “Knowing that they leave exposed a person who is over 75 to a risk, a concrete risk of dying, or a fragile person?”
Italy’s strategy has been to inoculate health care workers first, and then its older population, before making the vaccine available to younger age groups. Vaccine shortages and discrepancies in distribution across different regions delayed the campaign. Italy has fully vaccinated less than seven percent of its population, according to the country’s health ministry, in line with the average in the European Union.
But the national military police on Thursday notified 15 doctors and nurses on the island of Sardinia that they were under investigation for embezzlement and abuse of office for administering 50 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to their relatives — in many cases, younger people.
An opened vial of vaccine has a short shelf life, but all the doses were administered in the early hours of the day, meaning they were not at risk of being thrown away, investigators said.
“Some of the children or relatives of these doctors pretended to be caregivers,” said Major Nadia Gioviale, the head of the public health unit of the police in the Sardinian city of Cagliari. “Others signed up as ‘volunteers,’ although they were not paramedics or workers who care for fragile people; others just didn’t bother filling up the forms.”
Only 30 percent of people over the age of 80 have been fully vaccinated in Sardinia, and the region is among those where infections rates are the highest in the country, despite its stringent lockdown restrictions.
The authorities said the examples of fraud were part of a more widespread problem that affects the entire country. In Italy, 4.9 million people over the age of 80 have received their first shot, but 3.7 million people have been vaccinated under the label “other,” which includes some people with comorbidities, but also lawyers, court workers and local politicians.
In Sardinia, Major Gioviale added that the officers had just begun to investigate. “I expect to see these numbers growing, not just here,” she said.
Sicily faces similar challenges: Only 37 percent of residents over the age of 80 have been fully vaccinated. But 431,000 people listed as “other” have received first doses.
Other countries, including the United States, have also reported cases of people sneaking ahead of those who are eligible. In Canada, a couple from Vancouver was fined for flying to a remote town in order to get vaccinated.
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