How extra COVID vaccine doses might land you an early vaccination

Line of people waiting for COVID-19 vaccine - extra doses
Photo via Baltimore County Government/Flickr (Public Domain)

During a clunky vaccination rollout process, a few fortunate individuals have found themselves at the front of the line for vaccines despite not being priority patients. Due to the COVID-19 vaccines’ short shelf life and the difficulties in distributing doses, vaccination sites have been forced to find ways to distribute extra doses that would otherwise go to waste. Everyday citizens have learned they may be able to snag a shot if they wait in line at the right time.

Moderna and Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccines are extremely precarious, despite their 95% effectiveness rates. Pfizer’s vaccine must be stored at negative 70 degrees Celsius, colder than Antarctica in the winter. Once vaccines are thawed they cannot be refrozen. After thawing, they must be used within 12 hours, according to NPR

The vaccines are also shipped in multi-dose packages. This, combined with the reality that some people will inevitably miss their vaccination appointments, means vaccination sites are ending the day with extra doses that must be distributed or disposed of.

Some pharmacies have sought out nearby customers to distribute doses set to expire. Several vaccination sites have started their own waiting lists, and some cities have even created “lottery” systems. Nashville started a standby list that allows anyone to sign up and potentially receive a leftover vaccine dose.

Even when there isn’t an official standby line for “vaccine chasers,” they’re still lining up on their own. Everyone from young adults to families and the elderly are searching for extra doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Many are finding out about vaccination sites through word of mouth, according to Vox. A number of vaccination sites have seen large lines form after posts on social media went viral.

Healthcare staff have been the target of some criticism for giving extra vaccinations to random citizens who wait in line. To receive the extra vaccines, people must have the ability to wait in line for long periods of time. This means the distribution system could favor those who do not have to work, as opposed to high-risk patients who arguably “need” the vaccine more.

“It’s obviously not ideal to have that kind of a situation, where you have high-risk groups and they’re not receiving it,” Saad Omer, a vaccinologist and the director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, told the Atlantic. “One thing I hope people realize is that the staff there are trying to do their best.”

Though infrequent, vaccination sites have had to throw out vaccine doses when they expire unclaimed. Experts say even if recipients are not priority patients, it’s better to administer the vaccines instead of letting them go to waste.

“As far as I’m concerned, vaccinate anyone but the dog,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious-disease expert at Vanderbilt University, told the Associated Press.

The U.S. has only vaccinated 27 million people, about 6.9% of the population. Only 1.4% of Americans have received both vaccine doses, according to NPR. President Biden has made it his goal to vaccinate 100 million Americans in his first 100 days of office, which will require far more efficient distribution and greater supply.

State and local governments were not prepared to distribute extra vaccines, but they are working on systems to allocate extra doses. The chance of getting vaccinated with a leftover shot is likely to decrease over the next few weeks, as more people become eligible for the vaccine.

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Sources: Associated Press, The Atlantic, Vox, NPR

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