SACRAMENTO, Calif. — About a dozen people lingered outside Sacramento State's University Union around 3 p.m. Tuesday, waiting not for Starbucks or a student government meeting but for a chance at COVID-19 immunity.
The "vaccine chasers," as their counterparts in other cities have been dubbed, didn't have immunization appointments. Many of them wouldn't be eligible to make one anyway. They hoped to swoop in at the end of the day for expiring COVID-19 vaccines being administered at the University Union.
The same scene plays out at virtually every Sacramento County clinic, from Jesuit High School's drive-through Sunday inoculations to Urgent Care Now's nightly ritual in Arden Arcade to a weekend pop-up in Del Paso Heights. As vaccine demand continues to outweigh supply, people have proved their willingness to spend an afternoon in a parking lot on the off chance it might result in a shot.
Vaccine doses become available when people don't come to their appointments. Doses are unfrozen and must be used within six hours once each multi-dose vial is punctured.
It's hard to argue with the idea that vaccines are better used, even on lower-risk individuals, than wasted. Still, there's a stigma about getting vaccinated ahead of your tier, said Kirk, a man waiting outside the University Union on Tuesday. He declined to give his last name due to fear of community blowback against him and his retail business.
"We're not taking them out of people's arms. They're going to go in the garbage," Kirk said. "We're not limiting the (doses for the) elderly or the high-risk. I wouldn't cut in line, necessarily, and do that. If they're going to go to waste, why not give them out to people who are there?"
VACCINE WAIT LISTS
Providers can give vaccines to lower-priority groups when doses are about to expire "after focused and appropriate efforts to reach the groups prioritized at that moment," according to the California Department of Public Health's allocation guidelines.
A maximum of five to 10 doses are usually left over after health care professionals and volunteers finish injecting everyone with appointments, Sacramento County spokeswoman Janna Haynes said. Sometimes, there are no leftovers. There's a county wait list of people who couldn't get appointments, and websites like Dr. B serve a similar function. In both cases, people have a limited time to get to the inoculation site after receiving a text message.
The county's wait list is restricted to people in the current vaccine tier. As of Feb. 17, that includes health care workers, emergency responders, law enforcement people in long-term care facilities, teachers and anyone age 65 or older, with food and agriculture workers up next.
That's the organized track. Each site runs a little differently, Haynes said, and priority is usually given to people working at the clinic. A few vaccines may find their way into the arms of young and healthy hangers-on, but daylong waits in far-reaching lines, which have been the norm in Los Angeles, aren't often seen in Sacramento.
"Often it isn't an issue because there are no leftover doses. There may be healthcare staff or an eligible volunteer onsite in need of a second dose," Haynes wrote in an email. "We have not experienced widespread issues of people waiting outside locations (in) an effort to get a dose."
At Urgent Care Now, about 25 vaccine chasers lined up before the 9 a.m. opening Thursday to write their names, occupations, dates of birth and phone numbers on a physical wait list. Many had tried before, they said, and some brought books and folding chairs to make the wait in 45-degree weather more bearable.
They were contacted throughout the day as people didn't show up to appointments, and had 30 minutes to respond with what time they'd come back for the vaccine. Priority went to people in the current tier, in accordance with county guidelines. Someone once stood out front at 5:30 a.m. to be first in line, a nurse said, only to miss out when 20 higher-priority people signed up on the wait list.
Sacramento State had no extra vaccines Tuesday, but Kirk said he'd be back. He's in a group text with two other families who update each other as they hear about clinics with leftover doses — a strategy that's already resulted in one friend being immunized, he said.
Kim Gusman was similarly persistent after being turned away from a clinic near Grant High School in Del Paso Heights on Feb 13. She returned Monday but was told again that supplies were tight, and she should come back Saturday. She's eager to get the vaccine but not out of a specific personal concern.
"It's the safe thing to do," Gusman said. "It's how we get back to living a normal life and it's all I can do to make that happen."
Michael Takano-Alcantra drove the family car to the clinic near Grant High on Monday as well. His wife Joeleen works at Twin Rivers Unified School District, so she had an appointment to get a vaccine; he didn't. Still, they asked volunteers if he could get a shot. He was told probably not but put on a wait list.
Takano-Alcantra works as a machine operator at a door manufacturer. He works 40 hours a week or more in his manufacturing shop. Getting the vaccine would mean he can breathe easier.
"I assumed I wouldn't be able to get it," he said. "Oh yeah, it's stressful going to work in this job during the pandemic. And we've been busy too, because other people get (COVID-19) and call out sick."
Some vaccine distributors have been, perhaps intentionally, oblique on specific details. CVS, for example, has made public the cities where one can be inoculated but not the pharmacies' addresses.
With more than 20 CVS stores in Sacramento, tracking down leftover doses becomes even more of a crapshoot. And if there are extras, company spokeswoman Monica Prinzing said, pharmacy's records can help find the most vulnerable nearby residents.
"In the event of unused doses in our pharmacies, our pharmacy teams will evaluate how to most efficiently vaccinate eligible individuals with remaining doses," Prinzing wrote in an email. "This includes outreaching to eligible patients in their communities, as our pharmacies maintain patient profiles with information that can help identify who is eligible to be vaccinated."
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