Some People Are Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine Early. Here's How

Someone receiving a vaccine while wearing a mask.

eclipse_images / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • While people across the country wait to become eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, some have gotten creative about snagging a dose early, in ethical ways.
  • Individuals report getting vaccinated early by asking pharmacies if they have extra doses from appointment no-shows and volunteering at COVID-19 vaccination sites.
  • Seeking out early vaccination without social distancing properly can increase your risk of contracting or transmitting COVID-19.

As COVID-19 vaccine rollout steadily moves along, some states have expanded their eligibility from beyond healthcare workers and adults over 65 to include essential workers and those with preexisting conditions. But millions of people in the U.S. still remain unvaccinated and ineligible to get a dose. Now, some people are getting creative in their ways of securing a shot a few months before their eligibility group.

Jesse Whidden is a healthy 38-year-old in Kansas City. He runs marathons, cycles, and has no major medical issues. He has received his first dose of the Moderna vaccine.

Steve Hughes, 64, is also in good health in Washington, D.C. Yet, he received his first dose of the Moderna shot more than a month ago. So what do these men have in common? They both found ways to get the vaccine ahead of the eligibility tier they fall into based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

CDC Recommendations for COVID-19 Vaccine Allocation

  • Phase 1a. healthcare personnel and long-term care facility residents
  • Phase 1b. persons 75 years and older and frontline essential workers 
  • Phase 1c. persons 65–74 years old, persons 16–64 years old with high-risk medical conditions, and other essential workers
  • Phase 2. all persons 16 years and older not previously recommended for vaccination

Unorthodox but Not Unethical

Due to Moderna and Pfizer vaccine storage requirements, timing can be a tricky issue. Both vaccines require ultra-low temperature freezers and must be thawed for use, and administered within several hours of being thawed. (The FDA has since permitted Pfizer to refrigerate vaccine instead.) This means if there are a few appointment no-shows, vaccine sites may have leftover doses that run the risk of expiring.

With recent severe weather events making it difficult to get to vaccination sites, many appointments have been missed or canceled. Some individuals have been lining up outside of vaccination sites hoping to snag a leftover dose.

For Hughes, getting the vaccine wasn't a huge worry, but his family members urged him to seek it out. "My husband already had it and really wanted me to get it," Hughes tells Verywell. His method to get the vaccine? Simply asking. He started inquiring at local clinics about leftover doses. On his fourth try, he found his shot.

"I went to a large city-run health clinic at the end of the day near its closing time and inquired about any unclaimed doses," he says. "The response was very friendly and welcoming, and I was quickly told they had a few leftover shots, but it was not clear I could get one. A short time later, they told me I could have one if I were willing to wait."

After about an hour, the waiting room cleared, and he was not only given his first shot but scheduled for his second one at the same location. He says that he saw other people inquiring about leftover doses as well, but they were denied. He suspects that his age tipped the scale in his favor, as the other inquiry was from a young man.

It is important to note that pharmacists have advised against loitering at pharmacies because it raises the risk of contracting or transmitting COVID-19 if social distancing is not possible.

Karen, a resident of the New York area, reported a similar experience in early January. She visited a small local clinic just after 5 p.m. Two doses were left from no-shows. While Karen waited, one of the individuals with an appointment arrived, but the other did not. She received the only dose left as well as made a follow-up appointment for her second dose. She says she plans to take chocolates to the staff at her next appointment, as a small token of thanks.

Although some states have protocols on what to do with leftover doses, many are administering the shots to anyone they can in the short period the vaccine is effective once thawed. However, it's best to practice caution with this technique because you may be putting yourself at unnecessary COVID-19 exposure risk if social distancing is not possible.

Volunteering for the Cause

Some have found that by volunteering at a vaccination site, they've sped up the process of getting vaccinated for themselves. Because volunteers often interact with hundreds of people a day, many get the chance to receive the vaccine—though, this varies by vaccination site.

Whidden, an employee at Cerner Corporation, happened into his vaccine through altruism. Cerner Corporation, which creates health technologies for hospitals, created Operation Safe in cooperation with two area hospitals and Clay County to ensure that Kansas City metro residents could be vaccinated as quickly as possible.

Vaccine event days require significant staffing of all kinds. Whidden had time on a Friday and signed up for technical support, which is similar to his regular job function. When he arrived, he found no such position existed and instead worked on traffic flow patterns within the maze of vaccination stations as thousands flowed through their doors.

"It was very hectic and very stressful, but it was very, very fulfilling," Whidden tells Verywell. "We repeatedly heard comments about how well the event was working and how great Cerner was doing this for the community. People kept saying that this was a very happy day for them."

After the five-hour event, Whidden found out that he could sign up for a vaccine himself, which wasn't offered at the time to tech support. He says that now, three weeks later, Cerner offers vaccines to in-person volunteers outright, but there are limited volunteering slots available.

For someone who wasn't planning on getting the vaccine early because of his low-risk levels, Whidden was pleasantly surprised by the opportunity.

If you're looking to sign up to volunteer at a COVID-19 vaccine site, some states offer sign-ups through official state government websites. But you can also check your county's health department page for information about local volunteering. It may also be worth checking out any local health and educational systems for information about volunteering at their vaccination sites.

*In order to respect their privacy, Karen's last name has been omitted.

What This Means For You

While stories of underhanded methods for getting the vaccine early run rampant, both Whidden and Hughes found opportunities to get vaccinated in ethical ways: by utilizing excess doses or helping their community. You can check out your county health department website for possible COVID-19 vaccine volunteer opportunities.

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.

By Rachel Murphy
Rachel Murphy is a Kansas City, MO, journalist with more than 10 years of experience.