Some people around the United States have been going on massive treasure hunts in search of the COVID-19 vaccination. These hunters are not searching for gold or a buried treasure, they are going to vaccination sites with the hopes of receiving the coveted vaccine earlier than expected.
These hunters are no Indiana Joneses, but they are becoming known as “vaccine hunters.”
These vaccine hunters will often stake their claim outside of a COVID-19 vaccination site in the hopes that when the day is done, there will be leftover vaccines that will need to be used or thrown away.
Most clinics would rather vaccinate someone then have to potentially throw away a ready-to-use vaccine. This has led to some people receiving the vaccine much earlier than they would have based on the phased distribution.
While a few people may be having luck with this early vaccination approach, Utah County Health Department PIO Aislynn Tolman-Hill said that those who are not eligible have only been vaccinated on rare occasions in Utah County.
“As we get close to the end of the day, we count how many people we have in line, and we make sure that we are not going to waste any doses,” Tolman-Hill said. “We have been fortunate that we have not wasted any and we are committed to not wasting any. It might be that we have, on an occasional basis, someone that comes in with a spouse and if we need to get that additional person vaccinated, sometimes we are pulling in that one or two additional people and getting them vaccinated so that we aren’t wasting any doses.”
She said that those inoculations have only happened a handful of times, less than 10 instances, and that the county is looking to use extra vaccinations instead of throwing them away.
Intermountain Healthcare spokesperson Lance Madigan said Utah Valley Hospital has received “a few” calls from vaccine hunters, but that Intermountain is following state guidelines when it comes to delivering shots.
Madigan also said that to his knowledge, no one outside of the current age range eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine has been inoculated. If it were to happen, it would be very rare, he noted.
“The only reason I could see is if we have extra defrosted vaccine at the end of the day that we either had to use or throw away,” Madigan said in a text. “Rather than dispose, we go looking for someone to give it to.”
The good news for Intermountain is that there are healthcare workers who have been taking on those extra doses.
When Madigan refers to extra defrosted vaccines, he is talking about the fact that both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines need to be used within a certain time frame after being defrosted.
“Once either one of them is brought to room temperature, we pretty much have 12 hours to use them,” said Nancy Flake, bureau director of Community Health Services for the Utah County Health Department. “If the vials are punctured, we have six hours.”
As shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine come into the county, they are verified and the Moderna vaccine is placed in a freezer while the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is placed in a colder freezer. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine needs to be stored between -112 degrees and -76 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the CDC.
The vaccines remain there until they are ready to be used, at which point they are thawed in a refrigerator overnight.
After this, the vaccine vials are then brought to room temperature, which is when the syringes are filled and then given to the nurses administering the vaccine.
These vials are removed daily based on how many patients are in the scheduler and small amounts of each vaccine are moved out of the fridge, making sure there are not too many vaccines drawn up at the end of the day.
This number of leftover doses at the end of each day is usually less than 10, according to Flake, but on some days there are no doses left.
The first step for the health department, if there are doses left over, is to call the individuals that are on its waitlist. These people are told to expect a call at a certain time of the day, in which case they would make their way to the vaccination site to receive one of those doses.
When asked about a message to give to the vaccine hunters, Flake said that the county health department does not deviate from the guidelines set out by its executive director and the governor.
“We just tell them we’re really sorry but we have to follow the direction of our executive director and he follows the direction from the governor,” Flake said.
On the very rare occasion that those people on the waitlist do not show and the leftover vaccines need to be used, Tolman-Hill said the county would use them on someone outside of the current phase of the vaccination plan before throwing it away. But again, these instances have happened less than 10 times thus far in Utah County.