At 72, Gloria Clark is a bit too young to receive the COVID-19 vaccine just yet. So when the Baker administration announced that people who accompany older residents to mass vaccination sites could also be immunized, the retired teacher decided to place an ad on Craigslist. A free trip to the appointment, with a vaccine shot of her own for her trouble.
“If you are 75 or older and need a companion and ride to help you sign up and get to the appointment,” she wrote, “Give me a call.” Signed, “Gloria in Malden.”
As the state loosened the eligibility restrictions around its vaccine program to allow “companion appointments,” some people jumped at the opportunity to strike a pandemic arrangement. They would drive seniors to their appointment, even pay them cash, for the chance to be immunized and reclaim their former life.
But at a news conference Thursday, Governor Charlie Baker said officials had already heard some “pretty disturbing reports” of people seeking to exploit the system by “posting online trying to get a senior to bring them to a vaccination site.”
“If you’re 75 years or older, and you need assistance going through the vaccination process, you should only reach out to somebody that you know or trust to bring you as your companion,” Baker said. “Don’t take calls or offers from people you don’t know well or trust.”
But online, strangers were offering their services, sometimes with perks.
“I would love to make your appointment and take you there and back, free of charge. Why am I doing this? So I can get vaccinated too under the new state guidelines! I’ll take you out for lunch too,” one Craigslist post read. “I am healthy, Covid free, have a very nice car, and am a gentleman. Thanks!”
Another read: “It was just announced that anyone accompanying a 75+ year old resident to a vaccine site will also be allowed to be vaccinated as well. I’m willing to provide transportation to and from a vaccination site for anyone that needs as I’m looking to be vaccinated as well.”
Such online ads also drew the ire of state lawmakers, who said they raised broad questions about the effectiveness and fairness of the distribution program.
On Thursday, state Representative Steve Owens tweeted a screenshot that showed a series of offers posted to Craigslist from people hoping to accompany an older companion.
“Totally normal for your state’s vaccination plan to create a market on Craigslist for people willing to pay to drive seniors to their appointment,” Owens tweeted.
Totally Normal for your state's vaccination plan to create a market on Craigslist for people willing to pay to drive seniors to their appointments. pic.twitter.com/5CosCWsz30— Steve Owens (@VoteSteveOwens) February 11, 2021
By e-mail, Owens said a group of state legislators urged Baker on Thursday to put the program on hold, writing that the “companion system fails to fully address the persistent barriers that current eligible residents are facing in accessing the larger vaccination sites.”
Owens said he was particularly struck by a post that mentioned paying $250 to drive an eligible senior to a vaccination site.
“I don’t know if that particular post is a scam, but you can certainly imagine a desperate senior being tempted by that offer and ending up in a dangerous situation,” he said. “And if it isn’t a scam, what does it say about our vaccination plan where people are so anxious to get a shot that they are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to a stranger to make sure that they get a dose?”
Baker said the eligibility change was meant to help seniors who don’t want to “put the burden” on a family member or friend to drive them and to encourage older residents to use the mass vaccination sites..
But state Representative Mike Connolly criticized the plan as incoherent.
“Behold: ‘The Buddy System,’ ” he wrote on Twitter. “If only we had a good manager with healthcare experience in charge of the state’s vaccination program. Yes, this will improve efficiency, but it’s an incoherent policy that puts #equity further out of reach (and potentially puts seniors in danger).” (Baker is the former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care).
Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell called on the state to rescind the policy after reports of younger people “offering to pay seniors to take them to appointments.”
“While it may have been well-meaning, it took less than 24 hours for this new state policy to be abused,” Campbell said in a statement. “It’s the wrong approach when those who need it most — seniors, essential workers, teachers, Black and Brown residents in communities where infection rates are highest — are still waiting for their chance to be vaccinated.”
Under the new policy, so-called companions can book both appointments — one for themselves and one for a resident over 75 — through the state’s website.
The companions label applies to younger partners, adult children, family members, neighbors, and caregivers. People could begin to book appointments on Thursday. There are mass vaccination sites at Gillette Stadium, Fenway Park, the DoubleTree in Danvers, and the Eastfield Mall in Springfield.
The state’s website urges people 75 and older not to “accept calls offering assistance from someone they do not know or trust.”
“If traveling to a vaccination site with someone who is not part of your household,” the state warns, “please continue to wear masks, practice hand hygiene, and social distance to the greatest extent possible.”
But Clark, the retired teacher, said that as a volunteer she has always offered to take people to doctor’s appointments, long before COVID-19, so she doesn’t see how this time would be different.
“I’ll make an appointment for them because I know how to use the computer and I’ll get vaccinated at the same time,” she said.
But she did concede that her plan may have a flaw. Clark doesn’t know just how many people over 75 read Craigslist.
“Maybe their kids do, and the kids live out of town,” she said. “And they can say, ‘Oh, there’s a girl in Malden who can take you, give her a call.’ ”
Amanda Kaufman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.