- A loophole in the US vaccine rollout has made it possible for young and healthy people to get shots without having to skip the line.
- I tried to get one at DC pharmacies, a process that took days and at some point coincided with the attack on the Capitol by violent pro-Trump supporters objecting to the certification of Joe Biden's electoral win.
- The coronavirus vaccine rollout has been slow and messy. And at the end of some days, healthcare facilities are finding themselves with extra doses that have a short shelf life and could end up in the trash.
- It's one of those leftover doses that I was chasing, but I also wanted to ensure that any elderly or more vulnerable people waiting for them got them first. I learned it was possible, with careful planning and good luck, to get vaccinated early.
- Want to share your story about getting a vaccine? Email me at [email protected]
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
I had been trying for three days to get a coronavirus vaccine after learning you could score one just by hovering near a pharmacy around closing time. It was like going to a bakery at the end of the day and getting offered the extra goodies that would otherwise be tossed in the trash.
On January 6, just two people were ahead of me in line at the Giant Food pharmacy in Southeast Washington, DC. It was also around the same time that a violent pro-Trump mob was making its way to the Capitol just blocks away in what will now occupy history books as one of the darkest days in modern American politics.
As I waited in line, knowing only a handful of shots would be leftover that day, I scrolled through Twitter and wondered whether I should abandon the mission and run instead to the Capitol to cover the events unfolding.
I wanted to understand first-hand how otherwise young and healthy people are finding a back route to access the scarce vaccine, which right now offers the best chance of digging the US out of the deadly pandemic. How much effort and doggedness does it require?
For the most part, only healthcare workers and nursing home residents can qualify. Other vulnerable people can get it, depending on their state guidelines. Although I spend a lot of time in the hallways of Congress where numerous lawmakers have tested positive, I'm young, white, healthy, and do not live with older adults or children. That means my risk of severe complications from COVID-19 or passing it on to vulnerable family members is low.
It could take months before my turn comes based on the current priority lists, although federal officials have encouraged states to rethink their strategies to avoid waste.
In my efforts to get a shot, I visited Safeway and Giant Food pharmacies because DC specifically tapped them to help administer the vaccine to healthcare workers. But every place is dealing with leftover vaccines differently, including by throwing them out.
The massive vaccine rollout has been slow and messy. And at the end of each day, some pharmacies and hospitals are finding themselves with extra shots, sometimes because healthcare workers or others on the priority lists canceled or skipped their appointments.
That means the leftover vaccines with their short shelf-lives either would have to go into the trash or be given to people who just happened to be in the building at the time. This opening makes it possible for anyone to get coronavirus shots in DC so long as they are willing to wait or get lucky.
'It's worth a shot.'
I started calling eight different Giant and Safeway pharmacies around DC on January 4. The phone lines were busy for a couple of pharmacies. When I did get through, the pharmacists were courteous and informative.
One said she'd already received 100 calls just that morning asking about the leftover shots.
I hopped into my car and drove to a Safeway pharmacy in Northwest DC. Staff there told me that the extra vaccines at that time were going only to grocery store workers.
The next day, January 5, I called ahead to the Safeway in Southeast DC and the pharmacist warned me lots of people were already in line. I decided to drive down there anyway to check it out for myself.
It was hard to miss the line that had formed inside the store, right along the bread and bagel aisle.
Several shoppers approached people in line to ask what was going on. Their eyes popped wide open when they heard there was a short-cut to getting a coronavirus shot without being a billionaire or having powerful connections.
I counted 20 people lined up inside the store by the pharmacy. They were wearing masks, social distancing, and collegial. Many of them said they knew each other.
Virginia resident Sarika Singh, 42, told me her mother had cancer. She wanted the vaccine so she would reduce the risk to her mother.
"If they're going bad why not use them?" Singh said.
Erin Swauger, 23, said she didn't feel safe in her apartment building because her neighbors weren't wearing masks.
"I'm terrified of needles, but I was like, 'stab me with a shot'," Swauger said.
Her 55-year-old mother, Laura Swauger, who had just moved to DC, was in line too.
The mother said she was looking for a new job and that she'd feel better being at work knowing she was safe from infection. Both had spent 1.5 hours waiting in line for a leftover vaccine the day before, only to wind up empty handed even as five others got the extra shots.
Bharet Malhotra, 45, who works in software and was wearing a Black Lives Matter mask, told me he had a window between meetings and figured he'd use that time to stand in line. But he would be willing to let others go ahead of him if they needed it more.
"I would gladly give up my spot," he told me, if he noticed other people behind him who needed it more than he did.
People were filling out forms while they waited in line. The forms asked about allergies, current illnesses, and medications and other questions.
Everyone I interviewed said they thought DC's policy of opening up the vaccine to anyone who'd take it was a smart idea.
The National Association of Chain Drug Stores, however, said the way things are across the country now, with one-off instances of people getting leftover shots, leaves too many people with "false hopes." Chris Krese, NACDS spokesman, told me the group wants states to allow more people to sign up for vaccine appointments "to help render this issue moot."
The timeline for administering the Moderna vaccine, which is the one these particular pharmacies use, is tight. After each vial is thawed and opened, it has to go into a person's arm within six hours or it goes bad. Each vial has enough vaccine for 10 people, and so that's why some days there are shots leftover.
On that particular day at Safeway, only one shot was left even with more than 20 people in line.
It went to Mara, 33, who'd been waiting at the front of the line for 3.5 hours. She told me she lived with her parents who were in their 70s, and that she'd also been in line for two hours the previous day. She asked not to share her last name to protect her privacy.
"I'm grateful and I feel probably a little guilty because I know a lot of people were here standing in line," she said.
The pharmacists also set up her appointment to get the second dose.
Some people who'd stood in line for an hour or more had known all along that their chances of getting a vaccine that day were slim. When I pressed them about it, several of them shrugged and had the same response: "It's worth a shot."
Like everyone else, I went home and hoped for better luck next time.
I'm offered the vaccine on day three
Day 3 of my vaccine escapade coincided with a planned protest by President Donald Trump's supporters as Congress tallied the Electoral College votes to affirm Joe Biden's win. I opted to take the Metro commuter train to the pharmacy instead of driving to avoid the inevitable road closures for the event near the White House.
The pharmacist at the Giant in Northeast DC had told me on the phone ahead of time that there would likely only be a couple of shots left. As I was getting off the Metro at Union Station, a group of pro-Trump protesters was getting in after attending a rally where the president had spoken.
But I would soon learn that many of the president's supporters had moved in the direction of the Capitol just a few blocks away. On any other day, I'd likely be working in the very building — that always felt safe and secure — where the angry mob was headed.
When I got to Giant only two people were in front of me. The pharmacist told us that three shots might be left over, but warned people could still show up for appointments.
I waited for about 20 minutes as the number of people waiting for vaccines grew to eight. Two of them were older adults. As I stood there, I checked Twitter and saw the violence unfolding at the Capitol. I knew that likely derailed people's plans to get their shots that day.
The pharmacist came out and announced that six vaccines were left. She began handing out forms to each of us. When she came up to me, I said she should let someone else go. One of the older adults thanked me for giving up my spot, and the pharmacist assured me I could try back the next day.
A bigger task awaited me outside; how to get back home safely without falling into the mob that had now fully overtaken the Capitol, planted explosive devices at the nearby Republican and Democratic National Committee headquarters, and sent the city into chaos.
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