Douglas wasn’t sure where to go as he crossed the parking lot at the Inglewood Forum last week. The 40-something-year old Los Angeles resident had gotten a hot tip from a friend that there were often dozens of doses of Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine leftover at night.
Concerned he wouldn’t get a chance to make an appointment to be vaccinated for months, he approached the injection tents as the sky turned dusky, to ask if they had any spares.
Los Angeles is vaccinating health care workers, first responders and residents older than 65. But as the region battles one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the US, people are chasing vaccine doses ahead of their allotted tier, queuing in lines for hours, visiting sites after the official time ends. Information about where to show up for extra doses and when is typically passed word of mouth.
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Officially, there is no waiting or end-of-the day policy, county officials say. But given the dire health emergency, they also don’t want doses to go to waste. The gap between these two creates a space for “vaccine vultures” to swoop down.
It’s hard to put a number on how many people are scoring vaccine doses ahead of schedule, but it could be a few dozen each day at each of the six mega sites scattered around the 500 square miles of Los Angeles county.
That there are vaccines left over at all is due to several factors. About 10% of people with appointments do not show up for their shot, according to press reports. Vials containing the Moderna vaccine have to be used within six hours after opening before they have to be thrown out. And while vials are supposed to contain five doses, injectors can often coax six doses out of them.
In a mid-January statement, Los Angeles county said its department of public health “does not condone wasting of any precious vaccine doses and has not and is not directing providers to throw away unused doses”.
The statement added that the county was moving to set up vaccine clinics on quick turnaround whenever it learned of potential vaccine expirations. (The county public health department did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
Dr Monya De, an LA-area physician who volunteered at the Inglewood Forum, which is one of six mega sites for vaccine dispersal in LA county, said some family members accompanying seniors to get their shot asked if there were any available for them as well. “Our instructions are to vaccinate only the person who was registered,” she said. “It’s a volume issue: we have a large volume of people in LA who need to get vaccinated.”
But De said she did wonder about resource allocation and if the current approach is the best way to get the most needles in the most arms. “I could see potentially the instruction being changed to: yes, if you have an extra vaccine you can inject people who are coming along in the same family.”
At the end of her recent shift, De and the other injectors circled the Forum to get an accurate count of how much vaccine was left. They then got the go-ahead from the site administration to summon people who could quickly drive over for the extra doses. “We heard at least one person saying, ‘I think we’re going to throw some of this away’,” she recalled. “That was really concerning.”
Some of the volunteers knew people who could get there quickly, and soon a flurry of calls and texts went out. The volunteers’ friends and family began to arrive. No vaccine was thrown away that day.
LA residents who score an extra shot now but aren’t on the official appointment schedule do still need to get a second shot. They’ll have to walk up to receive their second dose in three or four weeks, though some walk-ups will receive emails to schedule their second shot with an official appointment.
Douglas, who asked to use a pseudonym, did not want to get in the way when he went searching for a shot. There was no formal line at the Inglewood forum that evening, just a few people walking up, sitting in chairs, and receiving injections. He watched them take selfies, feeling awkward and envious.
As he hovered nearby, waiting for an opening, the manager of the site soon closed it down. “No more doses today.” Douglas walked back into the dusky evening, wondering if he should try again.
He spent the next day debating, wondering if he should visit the vaccine site again. Eventually, he decided to try once more, arriving just after the official appointments ended. He crossed the dark parking lot and walked toward the injection tents, asking a few people and waiting.
That day, his fortune changed. “It’s your lucky day,” one volunteer told him, leading him to the spot where he would get his shot. But there was a catch, and a request: the site can’t handle a crush of people arriving without appointments. “Please don’t post this on social media.”