On Saturday 27 March, The Daily Beast published a story on TikTok user Hannah Brooke Hutchinson, also known as @hann.brooke95, a pharmacy technician based in Illinois, US, who had been sharing most aspects of her life with her 19,400 followers. That was until she decided to brag about stealing COVID-19 vaccination cards from her job so she and her husband could pass themselves off as vaccinated. In no time, other TikTok users found her full name, age and address, and led her to completely wipe her account in an attempt to escape the accusatory (but comprehensible) comments left on her videos.
Hutchinson is far from being the only healthcare worker trying to fake her way into the ‘free’ world of those vaccinated. Here’s how TikTok users Becca Walker and Savannah Sparks are hunting down people responsible for a trend that could have huge implications for the vulnerable Americans these employees serve.
After Hutchinson wrote “I work at a pharmacy and grabbed blank ones for me and my hubby” in the comments of another user’s TikTok about fake vaccination cards, it didn’t take long for Walker and Sparks to find out which pharmacy she was registered at. Sparks then reported Hutchinson to the Illinois Board of Pharmacy that had just granted her license.
“I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to steal from your job. And I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to steal blank vaccination papers for COVID-19 to falsify information and claim that you and your husband were vaccinated when in actuality you were not,” Walker said in a TikTok she posted to call her out.
After Walker and Sparks posted TikToks about her, Hutchinson wiped her TikTok and deleted her Instagram and Facebook accounts. Just before doing so however, she posted: “Stop hating on me! I don’t care what any of you think. I did what is best for my husband and I.” Hours later, she posted another TikTok claiming to be a 16-year-old girl living in the UK, doing an experiment for her dad, who is a filmmaker. But the TikTok video, which went back a year, matched with her husband’s Facebook profile, which has also been deleted since then, where she appeared to be a mom in her twenties.
“Very sick people come into pharmacies, so when you have a pharmacy employee lying about being vaccinated, everyone there is at risk,” Sparks, herself a pharmacist in Biloxi, Mississippi, told The Daily Beast. “I don’t want them in the profession.”
Since Monday 22 March, Walker and Sparks have posted more than half a dozen TikTok videos calling out other healthcare workers who’ve talked online about forging or attempting to forge vaccine cards. On top of that, both say other users have sent them dozens of more tips on who else is abusing their roles, which they are trying to verify.
Although forging vaccine cards as a healthcare worker would likely lead those doing so to lose their jobs, or even their whole careers, professional reprisal hasn’t kept some from turning the taboo topic of vaccine hesitancy into clout-chasing content.
This latest trend further highlights how resistant to vaccination many Americans remain, regardless of having a strong background in science or not. A survey conducted by experts from Northwestern, Northeastern, Rutgers and Harvard universities found that 21 per cent of healthcare workers surveyed did not want to be vaccinated. Hesitancy was 37 per cent.
As more Americans get vaccinated, anti-vaxxers have turned to social media to spread fear of a ‘Biden-governed future’ in which those without vaccination cards will be turned away from restaurants, hospitals and even shops. As for vaccination forgery, of course, healthcare workers aren’t the only ones trying to pass as vaccinated. On Thursday 25 March, the Office of the Inspector General warned those who’ve been vaccinated to not post images of their vaccine cards online because of an increase in fake cards.
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Social media is a great advertising tool. It hits us up with new trends and challenges—in turn triggering our ‘fear of missing out’ to persuade us to jump on the bandwagon. Social media’s latest trend involves posting ‘vaxxies’ or ‘vaccination selfies’ in hopes of curbing anti-vaxxer misinformation while encouraging those on the fence about getting vaccinated.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was one of the pioneers of the trend as she filmed her vaccination, broadcasting it on Instagram Live and asking followers to send in questions. “Just like wearing a mask, I would never advise you to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself,” she wrote. Last week, Dolly Parton shared a picture of herself getting the vaccination she helped fund. Captioned “Dolly gets a dose of her own medicine,” the 75-year-old country superstar kick-started a cold-shoulder trend, encouraging many to dress strategically for their jab.
With vaccination sites like Javits Center setting up dedicated booths for post-vaccine selfies, it seems like the trend has finally come full-circle. “People being vaccinated are allowed to take selfies of themselves,” clarified a FEMA press person at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College to Curbed, stating the need to seek permission before posting only if a health-care worker was in the frame. At other city-run vaccination sites in New York, staffers hand out equivalents of the “I voted” stickers which read: “I got vaccinated at Citi Field.”
Decked in face masks, shields and rolled-up sleeves, vaxxies are backed by one strong message: vaccines are worth the shot! With anti-vaxxer misinformation rampant on the internet, some users post these selfies with the aim of convincing more anti-vaxxers to ‘change sides’. Others share the moment to signal the dawn of normalcy after a long, hard year with COVID-19.
According to the latest survey by Pew Research Center, 69 per cent of the US public intends to get vaccinated or already has. These numbers are up significantly from 60 per cent who said they planned to get vaccinated in November 2020. With an estimated vaccination level of 50 to 80 per cent of the population to reach the herd immunity threshold, vaccination selfies are believed to work towards a greater societal good.
However, this concept has its fair share of criticisms and downsides. For example, the practice of posting vaccine selfies is considered to be ‘bad form’, given both the number of people who have died from COVID-19 and the fact that the distribution of the vaccine is wildly unequal. Including vaccination cards in these selfies also exposes the user to various scams and identity theft. Scammers can figure out most digits of your social security number with key information like date and place of birth featured on the card. They can open new accounts, claim tax refunds and engage in other identity theft with the information.
Vaxxies are further said to provoke frustration and major FOMO, which can become problematic. Comments along the lines of ‘Good for you!’ and ‘So happy for you!’ are common variants of vaccine FOMO as followers who haven’t been vaccinated yet envy those of their age who have. This builds a highly-debated social media tension, in turn encouraging vaccine vultures who stalk vaccination sites for leftover doses to jump on the trend themselves.
Despite vaccine selfies’ ‘narcissistic’ status, photography of inoculations has had a long history of positive public-health messaging. In 1956, Elvis Presley was photographed receiving the polio vaccine—renewing public enthusiasm especially among teenagers who were at the highest risk yet reluctant to get the shot. CDC further believes it to be a declaration of hope—listing “making your decision to get vaccinated visible and celebrating it” as one of the six ways to help build vaccine confidence.
And as Yoo Jung Kim, MD sums up the trend for Psychology Today: “If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the thousands of vaccination photos amplifies the same basic message: We’re on the front lines, we’re getting the novel vaccination to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our patients—will you?”