Douglas didn’t know where to go when he crossed the Inglewood Forum parking lot last week. The 40-year-old Los Angeles resident received a hot tip from a friend that dozens of doses of Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine often remain at night. Worried that he would not be able to schedule an inoculation for several months, he walked over to the injection tents as the sky darkened to ask if they had any spare parts.
Los Angeles vaccinates healthcare professionals, emergency responders, and residents over 65. But as the region is battling one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the United States, people are chasing vaccine doses above the established level, queuing for hours, visiting websites after official time. Information about where to show up for additional doses and when is usually passed by word of mouth.
Officially, there is no wait or end-of-day policy, county officials say. But given the dire health situation, they also don’t want the doses to be wasted. The gap between the two creates space for the graft vultures to attack.
It is difficult to calculate how many people score vaccine doses ahead of schedule, but it could be several dozen each day in each of the six metropolitan areas spread across 500 square miles of Los Angeles County.
There are several factors that have left vaccines at all. According to press reports, about 10% of people scheduled for appointments do not show up for vaccinations. Moderna vials must be used within six hours of opening before discarding. Although ampoules are assumed to contain five doses, injectors can often receive six doses from them.
In a statement in mid-January, Los Angeles County said its Department of Public Health “does not justify wasting any precious doses of vaccine, nor does it require healthcare providers to throw away unused doses.” The statement added that the county is moving to establish vaccination clinics as soon as possible whenever a potential vaccine expiration becomes known. (The County Health Department did not respond to requests for comment on this story.)
Dr. Monya De, a Los Angeles physician who volunteered at the Inglewood Forum, which is one of the six vaccine distribution megacines in Los Angeles County, said some family members accompanying the elderly to get vaccinated were asked to eat whether any available to them. “Our instructions are to vaccinate only those who have been registered,” she said. “It’s a volume problem: there are a lot of people in Los Angeles that need vaccinations.”
But De said she really wondered about resource allocation and whether the current approach is the best way to get as many needles as possible. “I would suggest that the instruction could be changed to: yes, if you have an additional vaccine, you can inject people who live in the same family.”
At the end of her recent shift, De and other injectors went around the Forum to calculate exactly how much vaccine was left. Then they received permission from the site administration to call people who could quickly drive up for additional doses. “We heard at least one person say, ‘I think we’re going to throw some of this away,’” she recalls. “It was really disturbing.”
Some of the volunteers knew people who could get there quickly, and soon there were calls and messages. Friends and relatives of the volunteers began to arrive. The vaccine was not thrown away that day.
Los Angeles residents who are currently firing an additional shot but not on the official schedule still need to fire a second shot. They will have to walk to get their second dose three or four weeks later, although some visitors will receive emails to schedule a second shot with a formal appointment.
Douglas, who asked for a pseudonym, didn’t want to get in the way when he went looking for the shot. There was no formal queue at the Inglewood forum that evening, only a few people came up, sat on chairs and received injections. He watched them take selfies, feeling uncomfortable and jealous. While it hovered nearby, waiting for the opening, the site manager soon closed it. No more doses today. Douglas returned to the dark evening, wondering if he should try again.
He spent the next day debating whether he should visit the vaccination site again. In the end, he decided to try again, arriving right after the official meetings were over. He crossed the dark car park and headed for the injection tents, questioned several people, and waited. His condition changed that day. “This is your lucky day,” a volunteer told him, leading him to the spot where he was to get the injection. But there was a trick and a request: the site cannot handle the large number of people arriving without an appointment. “Please don’t post this on social media.”