As the patchwork process of distributing Covid-19 vaccines continues across the country, many Americans have found themselves scrambling to find a dose for themselves or their loved ones. Amid the chaos, stories have emerged of lucky people happening upon situations where vaccines were available. In January, a CVS customer randomly got vaccinated on a trip to buy Hot Pockets. In Oregon, a snowstorm led health workers stuck in a traffic jam to vaccinate stranded drivers on a highway.
These stories stir up feelings of hope and envy because even though the pace of distribution has picked up in recent months — as of March 1, there were 22.99 vaccinations per 100 people in the US — there are still processes and obstacles to getting as many shots into arms as possible.
One of the biggest issues is the particulars of storing the vaccine and its limited shelf life. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, for example, requires below-freezing temperatures, lasts only five days at regular refrigeration, and, once opened, must be administered within hours.
The storage requirements also make this vaccine a challenge to administer in some parts of the country, including rural areas with a lack of evenly distributed medical centers. Cities, especially in majority Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, also have health deserts, which has led to people in these communities getting vaccinated at a lower rate.
These disparities and issues with rollout have been a source of contention over who should get the shots that, for whatever reason, would otherwise end up in the trash. In late December, Hasan Gokal, a doctor practicing in Houston, Texas, had six hours to administer 10 leftover doses from that day’s inoculations. He ended up giving them to people from the surrounding community — including the sick and elderly as well as his wife — and soon after, Gokal was fired and charged with stealing the 10 doses. If not for his quick thinking, the vaccine doses would have been wasted, and the charges have since been dropped. But the incident still raises the question: Where is the line between benefiting from a limited resource and following the mandated course of action?
Though prioritizing at-risk groups is ideal, there is not always enough time to find those most in need. Supplies are limited, so making use of everything, even if shots get administered to people they were not meant for, is critical, experts say. “A vaccine in an arm is always going to be better than a vaccine in a trash can,” Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University, told NPR.
Here are three stories, edited and condensed for clarity, of people across the United States lucky enough to get a vaccine by chance.
Mark Sussman, 36, Washington, DC
I think I slept two hours the night after we got our shots.
I’d been reading about the vaccine rollout and this article popped up in my Google feed about someone at Safeway here in DC being pulled out of the aisle and being given a shot. So I told my wife, “Hey why don’t you call?” We live four blocks from the Safeway and we can be there in, like, five minutes.
So my wife called on Saturday morning, and they took our names down and our date of birth, because I think they were prioritizing based on age. And then Monday at 7 o’clock, just as we were putting our 9-month-old daughter to sleep, we got a call from Safeway saying they had doses for both of us if we can be there in 10 minutes.
We started calling all of our neighbors frantically, trying to get someone to come sit in the house with Hannah while we went, because we knew it was only going to be, like, 30 minutes and the likelihood of her waking up was pretty low. But as soon as our neighbor walked in the door, Hannah woke up. I had already left — I jumped on my bike and biked over there. So my wife decided not to try to put our daughter back to bed and instead threw her in her little snowsuit and into the stroller. Hannah was screaming at the top of her lungs as my wife ran down the street like she was stealing her. It was funny because this was my daughter’s first time in a store, so as soon as they walked in, my daughter’s eyes just lit up.
I think from start to finish, it took about 45 minutes. And there were about 10 or 15 other people who got vaccinated alongside us under some similar circumstances.
Ordinarily, I would have been eligible for the vaccine probably by early April. I was following the vaccine distribution process pretty closely mainly for my parents. Both my mother and father have underlying health conditions and they haven’t yet met their granddaughter, so that was my main motivation for getting vaccinated. Now they’re both vaccinated and they’re coming in a week and a half to visit for the first time, so that’s a huge deal.
Ella Feldman, 21, Houston, Texas
The Monday after Winter Storm Uri hit, our power went out in the morning for about half an hour. My roommate Pilar and I, students at Rice University, were just kind of puttering around and couldn’t really do any of our schoolwork because we didn’t have wifi. When our power came back on, we pretty much immediately got emails saying, “Vaccines are on campus. Come now.”
It had snowed the night before, which is crazy in Texas, and there was black ice everywhere. We were in our pajamas and we threw coats on top, I got my little bucket hat, and we ran out the door.
We’re a 20-minute walk from campus, so we jogged over and they told us to go to the east gym. There was a line of what I’ve now gathered was probably 1,000 people and they said in the email they had 1,000 vaccines. At this point, no one knew why they had the vaccine, but it turns out a freezer at Harris County Public Health broke because of a power outage and their backup generators weren’t working. When they realized they weren’t able to save the vaccines, their priority was places that have mass distribution and the medical staff to be able to administer vaccines — which is how they ended up choosing Rice.
We were in line for half an hour and I was feeling really hopeless until I ran into a friend who heard they were also doing vaccines at Methodist Hospital. So we ran out of line and went across the street to the hospital. I had been very Covid safe and hadn’t been inside with that many people, so that was kind of stressful, but also we were getting our vaccine. We filled out some paperwork, and it all happened so fast. It felt like a fever dream.
I really didn’t feel like I needed it, and I’m really sad the freezer broke because that did mean they had, like, 5,000 vaccines to give out and it wasn’t necessarily to priority people. There were a lot of 20-year-olds like me.
Rice is a very privileged group of people in Houston, and it didn’t seem like the opportunity to get vaccinated was broadcast to the greater Houston community — it seemed like it was broadcast to people who lived in the neighborhood, which is very wealthy.
I wish the vaccine was handled differently in so many ways. But the fact that they were able to redistribute all of them and not waste a vaccine was really good. So I felt like I was doing my part by running there and having my arm ready.
David Macmillan, 31, Washington, DC
It was New Year’s Day and I was picking up some groceries at Giant with a friend. I knew the vaccine had been made available through commercial pharmacies for health care workers who weren’t affiliated with a hospital, but I didn’t know this particular grocery store had the vaccine at the pharmacy.
So my friend and I were walking past the pharmacy area, and we saw the pharmacist talking to an older woman and trying to convince her to take a vaccine. I guess the woman was unsure, and so the pharmacist turned to the two of us and said, “Hey, so I’ve got two doses of the Moderna vaccine because the people with scheduled appointments didn’t show up. We close in 10 minutes and I’m gonna have to throw them away if I don’t give them to someone. Do you want them?” And I was like, “Oh, definitely, sign us up.” I got the impression that the pharmacist had been trying to find someone to take it for a while and encountering a lot of people who were skeptical.
I was definitely not skeptical.
Growing up, I lived in a cult community in central Kentucky that was anti-science and anti-vaccines, so I didn’t get vaccinated when I was a kid. But once I reached adulthood I got a degree in physics, which tends to dissuade you from believing conspiracy theories, so I’m very pro-science and education now.
I had been posting a lot of educational TikToks about the vaccine and why it’s safe, so I asked my friend to take a video of me getting the shot, which I posted on TikTok and it got a lot of attention. I think it has 1.6 million views now.
When I posted it, I was thinking about that older woman who the pharmacist had approached first, who needed the vaccine more than me but didn’t want to get it. I thought maybe my post would get people excited about the vaccine and reassure the skeptics.
Lots of comments on the video were jealous or congratulatory, but there were also hundreds that were like, “You’re going to be dead in a week,” “Great job getting the microchip,” or, “Your body, your choice.” There are so many people who don’t understand how vaccines work, and it’s frustrating because we need people to be more informed.
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