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Vaccine Hunters Are Crossing State Lines for a COVID-19 Shot

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Brianna Gilmartin / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • "Vaccine hunters" are searching for COVID-19 vaccine appointments either within their state or different states.
  • Because vaccine qualifications differ by state, people will travel across state lines to get a hold of the vaccine for themselves and their loved ones.
  • Experts believe a more centralized system and guidance on extra doses would help streamline the process.

When vaccine availability was first announced in December of last year, Renee Michelet Casbergue, PhD, a 66-year old Louisiana resident and retired professor of Louisiana State University, was excited at the prospect of getting vaccinated along with her 98-year-old mother-in-law, Sylvia Casbergue. Like many others in the U.S., they were eager to secure their best shot at protection against COVID-19.

However, vaccine rollout in the U.S. has been off to a rocky start. Many states, including Louisiana, lack a centralized system, leaving people haphazardly searching for COVID-19 vaccine appointments across different hospitals, pharmacies, and platforms.

In an effort to search for and secure coveted appointments, Renee turned to a "vaccine hunters" Facebook group, where thousands are banding together to do the same. 

Sheneen Lalani, DO, a board-certified internal medicine hospitalist, defines vaccine hunters as people who go hunting for vaccines either within their state or different states. Oftentimes, some of these "hunters" may be searching for vaccine appointments for older loved ones, like the case of Renee.

Why People Are Vaccine "Hunting"

When scrolling through vaccine hunter Facebook groups, you'll shift through a stream of posts about which pharmacies and locations opened up appointments for the day, success stories, and the struggles of securing a second dose.

Lalani says there are several reasons why vaccine hunting occurs. Every state has its own vaccination criteria. While states are recommended to open up vaccination to older adults in long-term care facilities and healthcare workers, many have moved on to other priority groups like adults over 65, those with preexisting conditions, and other frontline workers.

“For some states, you have to be a frontline worker, elderly at a certain age, or have certain comorbidities or medical problems to qualify,” Lalani tells Verywell. However, Lalani says that in other states, there might be enough doses for other priority groups—creating an opportunity for people to get vaccinated in other states where they might qualify. For example, in a few states teachers are now eligible for vaccination.

For others, like Renee, the hunt is simply an effort to make an appointment for a qualifying loved one. With limited access to technology, many older adults may need assistance navigating the online vaccination portals. This motivated Renee to join the NOLA vaccine hunters Facebook group, which was created by Tulane medical student, Brad Johnson in an effort to save doses being tossed at the end of the day.

Early reports in January, showed vaccine doses being tossed in the trash or expiring after appointments went unfilled for the day. Many of these Facebook groups originated in an effort to crowdsource and alert others about these extra doses becoming available to the general public each day.

“If anybody heard of a place with vaccines going to waste, people can get there and get them," Renee says. "It quickly evolved into people trading ideas about availability."

Securing an Appointment

Once vaccines became available in the state, Sylvia called Renee asking for help scheduling an appointment. “It wasn’t desperation for me, it was for my 98-year old mother-in-law who just hasn’t seen family much in a year and is very anxious to be able to be with people,” Renee says. 

However, signing up for a vaccine appointment in Louisiana would be a challenge. Renee knew it would not be as simple as signing up for the annual flu shot. “[Sylvia's] perspective was, 'It’ll be like the flu shot, we just have to call Walgreens'," Renee says. "But I tried telling her, no, that’s not really an option yet."

According to Johan Bester, PhD, director of bioethics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, up to this point, the federal government has been sending vaccines to states. Rather than having a national streamlined vaccine rollout, it is up to the states to decide how they will distribute the doses.

“Each state has its own criteria instead of a streamlined process where everyone can get access to it," Lalani says. "And so when this happens, it creates this Hunger Games type situation where people are just trying to get access to it [the vaccines] as much as possible."

In Louisiana, there is no centralized system to register for vaccines. “So what that meant was to try to track down the vaccine, you literally had to call every one of those pharmacies to see who had appointments,” Renee explains. “It was a maddening process.” 

The lack of a system can create inequities in access to the COVID-19 vaccine. “Because a lot of people who are vulnerable or who should be prioritized for vaccination might not necessarily be that well connected,” Bester tells Verywell. Bester explains that older folks might be discouraged from getting the vaccine because they might face technology barriers or issues navigating the internet to make an appointment. This is where loved ones like Renee may step in to help locate an appointment.

On the NOLA vaccine hunters Facebook group, users posted information about vaccine availability in Mississippi's Gulf Coast. When Renee learned that Mississippi not only had a centralized website, but the state qualified people ages 65 and older for vaccination, she immediately signed up and made the one-hour drive from New Orleans to the Gulf Coast. Renee was able to receive her first dose on January 29. 

While appointments are meant for residents of the state, most states aren't cracking down on identification requirements or individuals who are crossing state lines.

On the other hand, Sylvia was eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Louisiana. Renee scheduled Sylvia an appointment at a local Walgreens located four blocks away from their house. She was vaccinated on January 30 and is now due for her second dose. 

What This Means For You

In order to learn about how to make a COVID-19 vaccine appointment, head to your county's health department website to see what your options are. If you're not currently eligible to get vaccinated, be patient as more doses become available.

Vaccine Hunting Isn't Perfect

But vaccine hunting comes with its own slew of issues, particularly when it comes time for the second dose. “People are posting that Walgreens is not honoring second doses," Renee says. "So I called the pharmacist there. And she said, 'To be honest, we haven’t had any vaccines delivered to us in two weeks. And I can’t promise you that we’re going to have some further next week.'"

The tricky part about vaccine hunting for COVID-19 vaccines is that the two-dose series is spaced roughly 21 days apart. This can pose a challenge for vaccine hunters who face financial, time, and travel constraints and may not have the time to travel hours away to get their second dose. Therefore, following up on the second dose can pose a challenge for those who lack transportation or other financial means to get to a different state for a second time. 

Because of this, some people might opt to get the second dose in a different location from their first dose. "Ideally, you’re supposed to get the second dose of the vaccine at the same place," Lalani says. "And the reason is, when they give you your first dose, they are putting aside a second dose that is allotted for you. And so they have enough supply for the second dose for you."

Making an appointment for a second dose at a different site may also put you at risk of not receiving the same COVID-19 vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says both the authorized COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna “are not interchangeable with each other or with other [coronavirus] vaccine products.”

Luckily, for Renee, she doesn't mind driving from New Orleans to Biloxi, Mississippi—an approximately hour to an hour and a half drive. “I commuted to Baton Rouge an hour and a half or two hours every day one way," Renee says. "So you know, the drive is nothing for me."

However, for others, traveling farther may not be desirable or an option. Renee says that there are people who are scheduling in Neshoba county, located in northern Mississippi. “Mississippi stretches almost all the way to Memphis, and some people are posting about booking a hotel and driving for six hours one way,” Renee states. “I don’t know a lot are driving that far, but it’s certainly a phenomenon.” 

The Way Forward 

Despite an expansion in eligibility for the vaccine, states still report vaccine doses at risk of going unused due to canceled appointments. There is little guidance on how clinics and hospitals should handle unused shots.

Lalani says that if a clinic has 100 doses and people cancel appointments, they might not have enough refrigerator space to store the extra doses. This can leave clinics making tough decisions on what to do with the extras.

To prevent vaccine waste, the extra doses may go to people who might not necessarily be considered a member of the CDC’s priority groups. “In the end, the bigger goal is to have mass vaccination, the most amount of people vaccinated as possible," Lalani says. "But we also have to make sure that the right group is vaccinated first. For example, the elderly."

Although it’s preferred that vaccines go toward the priority groups, Lalani says that it is better for the dose to go to someone rather than the trash bin. Lalani says that the best way to facilitate this process is to have national guidelines from the government on what clinics should do with the extra doses. “So I think the only way to figure out a good solution to this is to have national guidelines on what we have to do to ensure fair distribution of vaccines," she says.

Renee is hopeful Sylvia will get her second dose this week. Without it, Renee fears that they would have to start the process from square one.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Louisiana Department of Health. COVID-19

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine. Updated February 16, 2021. 

  3. ProPublica. How Many Vaccine Shots Go to Waste? Several States Aren’t Counting. Updated January 21, 2021.

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