America’s most prized leftovers: COVID vaccines

By Jack Healy

After weeks of waiting, Judy Franke’s vaccine breakthrough came when her phone rang at 8 p.m. one freezing February night. There were rumors of extra doses at the Minneapolis convention center. Franke, 73, had an hour to get there. No guarantees.

“I called my daughter and she said, ‘I’m putting my boots on right now,’” said Franke, a retired teacher with a weakened immune system. “You need to go find the vaccine because the vaccine’s not going to find you.”

The clamor for hard-to-get COVID-19 vaccines has created armies of anxious Americans who have resorted to hunting for leftovers on the fringes of the country’s patchwork vaccination system.

They haunt pharmacies at the end of the day in search of an extra, expiring dose. They drive from clinic to clinic hoping that someone was a no-show to their appointment. They cold-call pharmacies like eager telemarketers: Any extras today? Maybe tomorrow?

Some pharmacists have even given them a nickname: Vaccine lurkers.

Even with inoculation rates accelerating and new vaccines entering the market, finding a shot remains out of reach for many, nearly three months into the country’s vaccination campaign. Websites crash. Appointments are scarce. Severe weather like last month’s winter storms can wreak havoc on shipments. Many Americans have been left feeling like they are on their own.

“There are people who feel desperate, and this is what they end up doing,” said Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “It’s ridiculous. It’s wholly unnecessary. There should be a way to do this that does not require us going down this path.”

The leftover shots exist because the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have a limited life span once they are thawed and mixed. When no-shows or miscalculations leave pharmacies and clinics with extras, they have mere hours to use the vaccines or risk having to throw them away.

And so, tens of thousands of people have banded together on social media groups under one mantra: Better in an arm than in the trash. They trade tips about which Walmarts have extra doses. They report on whether besieged pharmacies are even answering the phone. They speculate about whether a looming blizzard might keep enough people home to free up a slot.

In Denver, suburban teachers stampeded a mass-vaccination site after they got an email saying they had an hour to claim 200 unused doses. In Massachusetts, hourslong lines wrapped around a DoubleTree Hotel after reports of extras ping-ponged across social media.

“It’s like buying Bruce Springsteen tickets,” said Maura Caldwell, who started a Minneapolis Vaccine Hunter Facebook group to help people navigate the search for appointments. The group now has 20,000 members. “It’s not easy. You can’t just sign up.”

Thousands of doses have already gone to waste because of power failures, paperwork mix-ups and a shifting jumble of state and local guidelines about what to do with leftovers. Earlier this year, health officials in California and New York state loosened their rules for who could be vaccinated when vaccines are about to expire.

Other health workers have distributed leftovers on their own. In Oregon, a vaccination team stranded on a snowbound highway went from car to car offering doses that would go bad in six hours. A doctor in Houston received national attention after he was fired for racing to inoculate 10 people — including his wife — before his vial of extra doses expired.

The pace of vaccinations has picked up to about 1.9 million doses per day, with more due as the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine rolls out. But health experts said the scavenger hunt for leftovers highlights the persistent disparities in America’s vaccination rollout, where access to lifesaving medicine can hinge on computer savvy, personal connections and a person’s ability to drop everything to snag an expiring dose.

Some of the leftover chasers are not yet eligible to sign up for appointments. Others are old enough or sick enough to qualify, but said that overloaded vaccination websites and endless hold lines convinced them to abandon the official channels and search for themselves.

Gunnar Esiason, 29, has cystic fibrosis and said he was not about to wait until his New Hampshire vaccine appointment rolled around on April 21. So he started showing up at Walgreens pharmacies and state-run vaccination sites — wherever there was a whiff of an extra vaccine, until he got a tip that a Dartmouth medical center had a few extras.

“I knew I was going to a lot of ‘No’s,’” he said. “All I needed was one ‘Yes.’”

In Minnesota, Franke signed up for eight different vaccine lists managed by doctors, Walgreens, Walmart, even a state lottery, but said nobody called. Then last month, she got a tip that the mass-vaccination site at the convention center might have some extras.

There were about 20 other people already milling around in the lobby when Franke arrived, she said, and a health worker quickly emerged to inform them there were no leftovers.

But many in the crowd stuck around, and after a half-hour, the vaccination team allowed people 65 and older, teachers and emergency responders to get their shots. Franke lined up and said she cried with relief on the car ride home to the suburbs.

But leftovers are getting harder and harder to find. More people are looking, and the extras are dwindling as pharmacies and public-health agencies get better at matching each day’s available vials with their list of appointments.

Vaccine teams in Fairfax County, Virginia, fill up individual syringes from a shared supply of vaccines to make sure they are not cracking open new vials at the end of the day. Several cities have created special leftover lists to offer doses to police officers, teachers or older people. Columbus, Ohio, said its “no waste” list of 250 people is full.

At Discount Drug Mart, a chain of 76 pharmacies in Ohio, the vaccination teams add up their doses against no-shows throughout the day, and start reaching out early to the 25 people who are on their rolling standby lists. Rarely, someone waiting in the parking lot at 9 p.m. or calling on a whim may land a vaccine.

“It’s a priority to never waste a dose,” said Jason Briscoe, the company’s director of pharmacy operations.

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