DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — A Dekalb County community leader is apologizing after admitting to registering and receiving a vaccine ahead of eligible patients. The county health department has since implemented measures that will make the “link-sharing” method she used to get a first dose difficult, if not impossible, to pull off now.
Aliya Bhatia, 33, caused a social media firestorm on Sunday night, days after tweeting a link to a New York Times article headlined, “The wealthy are getting more vaccines, even in poor neighborhoods.” Bhatia, the chief operating officer of a Georgia voting rights organization, captioned the article with the following tweet:
“I am completely guilty of doing this. I shouldn’t have done it. Got my first vaccine in Stonecrest a few weeks back. Am neither elderly nor poor. Pandemic ethics feels like a good theme for me to work on during Black History Month.”
Bhatia deleted the tweet on Monday, hours before speaking with Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr. She explained why she publicly admitted to skipping eligible patients on social media and described how it happened.
Bhatia, an Indian-American, highlighted race and class in her tweet.
She visited a vaccination site in Stonecrest, a predominantly Black, working-class city about 30 miles from her residence, which is in an affluent and mostly white Brookhaven neighborhood.
“I saw more (inequity) data. … I saw that New York Times article, and just felt like I wanted a time machine, Nicole,” Bhatia said, in tears. “I shouldn’t have gotten vaccinated.”
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“I guess I needed to fall on my own sword and warn others that the system isn’t designed to be equitable,” she added about posting the now-deleted tweet. “People have a right to be angry.”
Bhatia said a family member forwarded her a registration link last month for the Stonecrest site that’s clearly advertised as one for first responders and the elderly.
State officials have consistently warned providers and patients against vaccinating outside of the 1A+ eligibility requirements that include caretakers, nursing home staff and residents, health care workers, those over 65 years old, and first responders.
State officials have defended the current tier system, saying vaccine supply doesn’t meet demand as they consider the current group most vulnerable.
“I went. I looked. There was no eligibility question,” Bhatia said, referring to her registration link. “I even looked at them (family) and said, ‘Is it OK for me to go in?’”
Understanding Georgia’s current 1A+ eligibility requirements to register, Bhatia said she should have used “more discretion” as she went on to fill out her date of birth and an appointment time.
“It was, hopefully, a glitch that I got through, but never at any point did I say I was a caregiver,” she continued. “Never at any point did I claim to be anything other than myself.”
Carr went to the Dekalb Board of Public Health to find out how Bhatia could have registered. It all ties back to a link-sharing problem the county warned against last month.
The registration confirmation link was not a unique identifier link, meaning it could be shared without the system recognizing the profile from which it originated. Patient eligibility was confirmed before the link was sent to a patient. That link requested date of birth and an appointment time selection, and the system assumed the eligible patient is filling it out.
Instead, the link was shared, allowing for multiple people to schedule vaccination.
That can’t happen now.
Two weeks ago, Dekalb officials implemented a second verification checkpoint, requiring eligibility documentation to accompany patients on the front end of registration and when they receive and bring that second registration link confirmation to the vaccination site.
The county began warning against link-sharing last month.
Carr asked Bhatia if she plans to receive her second dose, which was scheduled during the first appointment. Bhatia said she’d seek county guidance but did not want to receive it if it means impeding another eligible person’s ability to receive their shot.
“For those who are making that decision right now, I think the right thing to do is not to do what I did, but rather to wait if you can,” Bhatia said.
A spokesperson for the county health department said the link-sharing had a minimal effect on the county’s vaccine supply.