Jesús Fernández is among the more than 8.5 million people in California who have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Despite the growing numbers, many people have expressed feelings of guilt for something that should be putting them at ease.

Fernández and his family own a Mexican ice cream parlor in Long Beach. Under state guidelines, they’ve been considered frontline workers – making them eligible for the vaccine in mid-February.

When he arrived at Long Beach Memorial Hospital, he started to have mixed emotions about his decision to accept the vaccine. Besides the few days a week he works at his family’s business, Fernández spends most of the day at home studying to get his master’s in public diplomacy from USC.

His family was assigned to a vaccination that serves almost 750,000 residents – the majority of whom identify as Hispanic/Latinx with seniors accounting for 10.5% of the population. Fernández, who is 22, said he was the only young person at the site when he arrived.

“I just knew so many other people who didn’t necessarily meet like a certain age cut off or whatever who could’ve really used the vaccine,” Fernández said. “I have family members and cousins who were much older and couldn’t have gotten the vaccine based on the standards and metrics but probably needed it more than I did.”

Fernández said he felt like he was taking the opportunity to get vaccinated away from someone else who might have needed it.

“I think for most people, the guilt is probably more connected to the anxiety of being caught,” said Edden Agonafer, a clinical psychologist within the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at USC. Dr. Agonafer said that some people may feel remorse for “taking someone else’s opportunity – especially someone who’s really in need of this vaccine.”

Brigid Murphy, 21, is a junior at USC, who received her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on March 8.

She works in the communications department at the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. Murphy became eligible for the vaccine because of her role as a student-worker and said she was surprised by how fast she was able to get an appointment.

“Four hours later, a person called me back and was like, ‘Hi, I’d like to help you set up your vaccine appointment,’” said Murphy. “I thought it was too good to be true.”

Murphy said her grandparents back home in Chicago still haven’t been able to get an appointment.

“I had this initial sense of guilt, just thinking about why I deserve it now and not later,” Murphy said. “I settled on the fact that it’s available to me, and I might as well take this opportunity to get it because I don’t know when the opportunity will come up again.”

Data from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health revealed deep inequities in L.A.’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. In some wealthy predominantly-white neighborhoods such as Beverly Hills, 25% of residents have already received their first dose. In contrast, South L.A., where the majority of residents are low-income, Black and Latinx, only 5% have received their first dose.

Murphy, who is white, said recognizing these disparities was difficult when she decided to get the vaccine. “Being who I am has access to the vaccine, over a lot of people who probably need it more than me as Black and brown populations are more highly affected by COVID,” Murphy said.

Dr. Agonafer, who was also vaccinated last month, hopes that the USC community will be mindful of our neighbors in South Central and surrounding areas. This is more than just a conversation about who should and should not get vaccinated, according to Dr. Agonafer. It’s a conversation that requires nuance surrounding accessibility and inequities in vaccine distribution.

“If we are getting it, how are we also keeping that in mind for other people and how are we advocating for the systemic and structural change that will help marginalized, forgotten underserved folks really have a way to access the things that each of us have an easy time accessing,” she said.