If she’d waited to get vaccinated until it was her “tier’s” turn, Isabela Medina wouldn’t have gotten the Covid-19 vaccine until late summer.
She wasn’t willing to wait.
Medina, a healthy 25-year-old, moved across the country to live with her parents on the East Coast after her work in the film industry dried up. Anxious to return to work safely, Medina decided in mid-January to go “vaccine dumpster diving.”
Though a dumpster, this was not. Rather than dig through a hospital’s garbage for vials, Medina staked out a grocery store pharmacy. She wanted to score a leftover vaccine.
She and a friend arrived in the early afternoon, prepared to wait. A line formed behind them. Hours later, when the day’s appointments were done, pharmacy staff offered up eight leftover vaccines. Medina and her friend gleefully claimed two of them.
“I felt good about it – and better that it didn’t go to waste,” she told CNN.
Medina is what has been described by many on the internet as a “vaccine hunter,” or someone who stalks a pharmacy or vaccination site for leftovers.
These vaccine seekers, spurred by reports of doses being dumped and feeling antsy for the country’s vaccine rollout to pick up the pace, say they want to prevent waste – by getting their shot early.
They see it as a win-win: They get vaccinated and a precious dose of the Covid-19 vaccine doesn’t end up in the trash. But their gain is also a symptom of a lack of coordination in the US vaccination plan – the initial rollout was much slower than expected, delaying President Joe Biden’s plan for “100 million vaccinations in 100 days.”
The lucky – and privileged – few who get vaccinated early assure what they’re doing isn’t wrong, although it certainly feels unfair to those who don’t have the time or resources to “hunt” for their own.
Unsurprisingly, the hunters have been criticized for “jumping the line.” But the hunters argue what they do is more ethical than letting the vaccines expire.
“This might be a good way for people who haven’t been able to get around the logistical nightmare of signing up to just show up and get it,” Medina said.
Vaccine hunting is a ‘fix’ for slow vaccine rollout
By all accounts, the US vaccine rollout so far has been disappointing.
CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen explained, in sobering terms, just how disappointing in a January interview, before Biden was inaugurated.
The current pace is 1.3 million doses per day. At this pace, the US will have reached about 75% of population for herd immunity by summer 2021.
And despite the incredibly high demand for vaccines, vaccination sites across the country have reportedly discarded precious doses after they weren’t administered in time. (Both Pfizer and Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccines only last a few hours unrefrigerated – Pfizer’s will expire within two hours, and Moderna’s within 12, after the vials are removed from the fridge.)
To vaccine hunt is to devote hours, possibly days, of your life waiting for a dose of a vaccine that may or may not be available. It’s a crapshoot. You need time, money, connections and luck to succeed. But some say it’s worth the effort involved.
Brad Johnson, a medical student at Tulane University, wanted to make tracking down vaccines a bit easier.
Johnson is the admin of a Facebook group called “NOLA Vaccine Hunters,” where New Orleans residents trade tips and share leads on leftovers.
He said he got the idea after a friend living in Israel told him about Facebook groups in the country where residents inform each other about the pharmacies that had extra doses.
“When there’s a surplus of doses about to expire, they ignored the vaccination schema and just offered it to anyone,” he told CNN.
So, about three weeks ago, Johnson made a tool like that for New Orleans. The group now has close to 600 members.
Johnson said he’s heard of a few members successfully tracking down leftover vaccines for themselves or their parents.
The Facebook group is Johnson’s attempt at correcting what he called a “patchwork of chaos” in the US vaccine distribution plan.
Biden has an ambitious goal of administering “100 million vaccines in 100 days.” Whether he’ll succeed has yet to be seen, considering he’s been in office for less than a month. Some health officials believe his goal is too modest as Covid-19 cases continue to climb unimpeded.
The ethical conundrum of vaccine hunting
Because the vaccine is in such high demand and so difficult to actually get – including for people who are eligible to receive their vaccine – there’s a feeling of injustice when otherwise healthy people get it, even if they aren’t technically stealing doses from people who need them, said Melissa Goldstein, an associate profess