Hollywood Elite in COVID-19 Vaccine Scramble: ‘It’s the Hunger Games Out There’
As coronavirus vaccines trickle out across the country and new infections and deaths rise at alarming rates in cities like Los Angeles, some power players in entertainment and media are leveraging their clout and connections to be amongst the first to get inoculated.
Numerous high-flying executives and dealmakers have been cycling through private physicians and concierge services to receive one of the two established COVID-19 vaccines on the market. Others have been tapping their vast resources in a mad dash to get vaccinated as the government, especially in Hollywood’s native California, churns through a sluggish rollout.
Some efforts to receive the vaccine ahead of schedule do not violate any laws – though they have raised questions of ethics and good taste in exclusive social circles and boardrooms across Los Angeles. It’s also clear that power and wealth, which allow many in the Hollywood community to afford on-demand doctors and access private planes to engage in vaccine tourism, have enabled them to get shots more safely and efficiently than average citizens. It illustrates the gaping chasm that exists between haves and have nots in this country when it comes to healthcare.
Some media heavyweights are openly exploring options outside of the L.A. county health system in what they view as a life-or-death race against the high demand and limited supply of vaccines.
Music industry legend Irving Azoff is among those who recently obtained a vaccine, around the time in mid-January when Los Angeles County expanded access to the shots for citizens 65 and older, a new tier that previously only prioritized healthcare workers and those over 75. These expanded inoculations were not available at LA-area testing sites like Dodgers Stadium or concert venue The Forum until Tuesday of last week. While sources said Azoff was facilitating vaccines for those in his sphere of influence, he only confirmed his own inoculation.
“I’m a 73-year-old cancer survivor. I recently had part of my intestine removed. Damn right I received the vaccine, and I’m glad I did. Everyone eligible should get vaccinated as soon as they can,” Azoff told Variety.
Azoff is said by sources to be among several notable figures recommended to Dr. Robert Bray, a neurological spine surgeon whose specialty practice is based in Newport Beach, Calif. Bray is being referred in power circles by Robert Goldstein, sources said, the acting chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, which owns Las Vegas’ Venetian Hotel and similar properties in Macau.
While a representative for Goldstein had no comment, Dr. Bray said that his practice was not operating as a private concierge and was allotted 200 vaccinations from the state. His practice observed California’s tier system, he said, offering vaccines to healthcare workers and the elderly, then allocating “extra” doses at the practice’s discretion. Bray acknowledged he knew Goldstein but did not speak to whether the CEO and his acquaintances were in his care, citing HIPAA privacy rules.
While the state expanded its vaccine criteria last week, availability of the shots continues to be an issue nationwide. Los Angeles County has one of the lowest immunization rates in the U.S. Residents started caravanning to Dodgers Stadium to wait hours for the vaccine. One witness on hand saw a top Hollywood dealmaker idling for so long in line with the general public last Tuesday, they feared the individual’s Tesla Model X would run out of battery power. Yet, in a culture of extreme VIPs, others do not care to wait. It’s led to desperation, one industry caregiver said.
Beverly Hills-based Dr. Robert Huizenga confirmed to Variety that his practice has been offered in excess of $10,000 by individuals, including members of the entertainment industry, desperate to get vaccinated.
“We’ve been offered bribes. We see people taking planes to every location. We’ve seen people try to transiently get into the healthcare profession or on staff at nursing homes, so they qualify for an early vaccine,” said the physician, who has also appeared as an expert on the NBC weight loss competition show “The Biggest Loser.”
Huizenga said individuals from the entertainment space were well represented in those hustling for an early shot, in a “fight for their lives. You can’t really blame them for pulling out all the stops. The state and the government have set up a system that is really horrendous.”
Hundreds of elite executives, agents and stars are mightily coming down on their top-tier healthcare providers in L.A.’s Westside neighborhoods, where a major vaccination site has yet to be designated. Those enrolled in UCLA’s executive health program (which is or isn’t a concierge health service, depending on who you ask) have been inundating program director Dr. Robert Ansell for information on when they can receive the vaccine.
“UCLA is operating extremely by the book and hasn’t given a single shot to the concierge patients,” one member of the service said. The UCLA executive health program requires a fee and donation to UCLA Medical Center, which costs in the $15,000 to $25,000 range on an annual basis, numerous members said, on top of premium medical care. Some members have been openly venting to industry figures on UCLA’s Board of Regents — including United Talent Agency CEO Jay Sures, Mandalay Entertainment CEO Peter Guber, and former Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing – about the vaccine rollout in Los Angeles, and asking when concierge patients might be eligible.
A spokesperson for UCLA said that “philanthropic support is in no way a criterion to determine vaccine candidacy, and no program or options exist to bypass vaccination priorities at UCLA Health. We are following the direction of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and prioritizing health care workers, followed by patients 65 and older and facing the greatest risk based on their medical conditions. As supplies increase and guidelines expand, we are prepared to increase the number of people being offered an opportunity to be vaccinated.”
A UTA spokesperson and Guber did not immediately respond to Variety’s request for comment. Lansing confirmed that vaccine-eligible friends and colleagues called her only recently for information on how to register for the shot and insisted “not one person ever asked me to break the line or use influence.”
Los Angeles residents using boutique physicians have also jam-packed a waiting list at Beverly Hills celebrity pharmacy Mickey Fine, the Roxbury Drive haunt which has touted state-of-the-art vaccine refrigeration in their pharmacy and adjoining café. The location has yet to administer a single shot, said those on the waiting list. In an audio message to patients, the pharmacy confirms it has yet to receive either vaccine currently available.
Managers, agents, producers and a few film directors have pivoted from their daily business to focus on helping clients and stars find vaccines for family members, insiders said. Some notable names are using their own shoe leather, not representatives, to seek out the vaccine.
Harrison Ford spent two-and-half hours in line at El Camino Community College in Torrance, Calif., last week, after booking his own appointment. A rep for the 78-year-old star declined to comment further but sent along his thanks to the healthcare professionals and volunteers on the ground. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the 73-year-old former Republican governor of California, recently shared a similar experience in East Los Angeles on his social media accounts. Oscar-nominated producer Frank Marshall, 74, tweeted a photo of his vaccination documents last Thursday, received at a Kroger supermarket. Steve Martin documented his wait at New York’s Javitz Center.
“It’s ‘The Hunger Games’ out there,” said one top entertainment executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Not all are content to navigate California’s byzantine vaccination process. Allen Shapiro, the 73-year-old former CEO of Golden Globes telecast producer Dick Clark Productions, was reported last week to have flown via private jet to Florida recently in search of the vaccine with friends. Sources tell Variety that Shapiro did fly private — but alone — to Miami. While some reports have decried this as an example of vaccine tourism, insiders said Shapiro owns property and conducts business in Florida. Moreover, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was openly inviting the 65-and-older crowd this month to enjoy his state’s robust vaccine program without a need to verify residency. Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees has subsequently overturned Gov. DeSantis’ open-door policy, requiring all Floridians to provide proof of residency in order to receive the vaccine. Former Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons, 72, also recently spoke on the record about heading to Florida from New York to get his vaccine, citing the state’s efficiency. Others are said to be flocking to Hawaiian island of Maui.
Some Hollywood power players are aghast that people in the industry are using their connections as millions of healthcare workers, older citizens, teachers, and essential workers toil in line. As of January 15, reports citing the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that California has only administered 2,716 doses for every 100,000 residents.
“Industry people in these positions should be using their power to help and heal the system, not hurt it,” said one former healthcare worker-turned-media-executive.
Dr. Art Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at the NYU School of Medicine, said he has heard of hospital donors seeking early access to the vaccine, or about concierge doctors being asked to provide it early for their wealthy clients.
“It’s bad behavior. It should not be condoned. We should find ways to penalize it,” he said. “We’ve got 91-year-olds waiting, health care workers waiting. People who are wealthy can easily find ways to quarantine, mask, and stay isolated for another month or two, and more vaccine will become available.”
Gene Maddaus contributed to this report.
Variety's Matt Donnelly contributed to this post.