Feb. 1—DURHAM — On the same day Durham County stopped making appointments for COVID-19 shots because of low supply, a Durham residential weight-loss center emailed alumni offering 40 vaccinations for people paying thousands of dollars for a month-long stay.
The Durham County Department of Public Health qualified Structure House on Pickett Road as a congregate living facility and allotted it the vaccine appointments, wrote Katie Rickel, chief executive officer, in an email to alumni with the subject line “COVID Vaccines available.”
“Any Structure House participant or Family Support will be eligible, but you must be on campus for the four-week period between Feb. 21 and March 21 to qualify as a ‘congregate living resident,'” the email stated.
The vaccinations for Structure House residents will be available on a first-come, first-served basis at the health department, “about 15 minutes away” from the center, it stated.
In an email, Health Department spokesperson Alecia Smith confirmed the department had allocated 40 of its doses to Structure House. The center is a residential treatment facility, she wrote, making it part of the state’s Group 1 prioritization of long-term care facilities.
According to its website, Structure House has packages for days- or weeks-long stays on its 12-acre campus, along with a family support option for someone to accompany the participant. Residents live in apartments, but may gather for meals, exercise and group classes or therapy.
“I explained what Structure House was, and they approved it,” Rickel said.
TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz described Structure House as “one of the top weight loss centers in the country” in a 2011 show that featured a 700-pound woman who sought help there.
Health departments, hospitals and other providers offer the COVID-19 vaccine to everyone for free because the shots already have been purchased by the federal government. Some providers may ask people to bring insurance cards, as providers can charge insurance companies an administrative fee so long as there is no cost to the patient.
On Thursday, the day Structure House emailed alumni, the county health department announced in a news release it no longer was making vaccination appointments due to a limited supply. It’s a similar situation across North Carolina and the country, where there is not enough vaccine to give shots to everyone who wants them.
“[T]he unfortunate reality is that demand is far outpacing supply,” Durham County Health Director Rod Jenkins said in the news release.
Issues of equity raised
Aidil Ortiz, an East Durham community advocate, said it seems unfair to let Structure House use its medical designation to jump in front of the elderly and frontline workers.
“It just reeks of privilege and money to basically have something that so many people are waiting on,” said Ortiz, who also is a co-host of Black Body Health The Podcast, sponsored by the Center for Black Health & Equity in Durham.
Ortiz also has concerns about the center using vaccinations in its promotion as other businesses are shut down and closing.
“It just sounds so gross and opportunistic at a time when so many people are suffering,” she said.
Structure House’s email to alumni raises questions about linking paid services to the vaccine, said Arthur Caplan, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU School of Medicine in New York City.
“In a plague, that is repugnant marketing,” Caplan said. “It rewards the rich. It rewards people who have some sort of connection to that company.”
The News & Observer asked Rickel whether county officials know that people must pay for the weight-loss center’s services to have access to the vaccine.
“I made clear what Structure House was,” Rickel said.
Structure House clients are at high-risk, she said, because they are obese and often have other health conditions.
Even so, North Carolina’s guidelines say people outside the state’s first two vaccination groups who have conditions that put them at high-risk for COVID-19, including obesity, are not eligible for the vaccine until Group 4.
Group 1 covers health care workers and long-term care staff and residents, while Group 2 covers anyone 65 or older. The health department designates Structure House as a Group 1 facility because it provides health-related services in a residential setting.
Rickel declined to answer questions about fees and how many people got the email, saying her legal team would respond to additional questions.
A 2009 Travel+Leisure article and a 2014 Elle column that featured Structure House indicated it charged around $2,500 a week. Structure House’s website outlines a Healthy Escape package with “a special discounted weekly rate of just $1,995.”
Importance of communication
Smith, with the Durham County health department, said program costs aren’t part of the discussion in allotting vaccinations.
“As a residential medical treatment program, per NC DHHS guidance, vaccination appointments are designated to those currently residing and participating in the program,” she wrote.
Health Department officials have reached out to Structure House about the email sent to its alumni, Smith said.
“The purpose of this [email] was to communicate with alumni, who often return to the facility for at least four weeks as part of ongoing treatment, in order to help explain COVID safety measures being taken by the facility,” Smith wrote. “We remain in contact with this facility and other residential treatment facilities, and all are aware of the importance of clear communication regarding vaccines and apologize for any confusion or concerns.”
The N&O forwarded Structure House’s email correspondence to the N.C. Attorney General’s Office, asking if it had any concerns.
“Our office is taking a close look,” spokesperson Laura Brewer wrote in response.
Gina Upchurch is the executive director of Senior PharmAssist, a Durham organization that promotes healthy living for seniors.
For three weeks, she has been trying to get her parents vaccine appointments. She succeeded Friday after Rockingham County announced online and telephone registration.
“I kept refreshing, refreshing,” Upchurch said. “Meanwhile, I was hitting dial on their phone number, and it kept saying, ‘All circuits are busy.'”
She finally got an appointment for her father, who recently had a stroke, and then one for her mother.
It was “like the lottery,” she said.
Upchurch said she understands the health department providing Structure House vaccines since people are living in close quarters, but it seems inappropriate to entice alumni with the prospect of getting the vaccine.
She also understands how a business with access to the vaccine would look out for its clients, she said.
“Everybody is trying to protect the people that they know and they care about or have some connection with,” she said.