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Don't Loiter At Pharmacies Hoping For a COVID-19 Vaccine

A 24 hour pharmacy sign.

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Key Takeaways

  • Public health experts advise against loitering in a pharmacy waiting to be offered a leftover COVID-19 vaccine because it raises your risk of contracting or transmitting COVID-19.
  • Some pharmacy customers have been offered shots because unused doses would go to waste otherwise.
  • Public health experts expect the number of leftover vaccines to decrease as more people become eligible for vaccination.

Stories of people being offered the COVID-19 vaccine by pharmacy employees while just doing their shopping are proliferating on social media. Reading them, you might be tempted to loiter in the nearest CVS, RiteAid, or Walgreens waiting for your own lucky break. But public health experts strongly discourage that course of action. Should you disregard their advice, they say, you’re putting your health as well as that of others in jeopardy.

Since the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December, over 19 million people have received their first dose of the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Most are healthcare workers, first responders, older adults, or residents of long-term care facilities such as nursing homes. But a few are people who just happened to be in the right place at the right time—like a pharmacy shortly before the end of the workday.

It’s Not Worth It

But the odds of winning the vaccine lottery are too minuscule to make flirting with danger worthwhile. By prolonging the time you spend out in public, you increase your chances of inadvertently contracting or transmitting the virus, Leana Wen, MD, MSc, professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University’s Milken School of Public Health in Washington, D.C., tells Verywell.

With COVID-19 cases “surging across the country, we should all be doing our best to prevent from acquiring and transmitting COVID-19, and you raise your own risk by being in public indoor spaces,” she says. 

That said, you should jump at the opportunity if it arises. Like all vaccines, the COVID-19 vaccine has to be discarded after it has spent a certain amount of time outside of subzero storage.

Frozen, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines can survive for six months. Refrigerated, the Pfizer vaccine can survive for five days, and the Moderna vaccine 30 days. At room temperature, they can survive for six hours.

If you’re randomly offered the vaccine, in other words, it’s only because the dose will expire before long. In a biohazard waste container, it’s no use to anyone.

If “for whatever reason, you are offered a vaccine because you happen to be in a setting where there are doses that are being thrown out, you shouldn't turn it down, because the alternative is that the dose is going to be thrown away," Wen says. "It's better that you receive it."

What This Means For You

You shouldn’t wait around in pharmacies in the hopes of being offered a leftover COVID-19 vaccine. Your chances of success are meager, and you are increasing your likelihood of you or someone else contracting COVID-19.

The Leftover Vaccine Problem

But why are technically ineligible individuals being offered the vaccine at all? Wen says it has to do with an occurrence familiar to anyone who has ever worked in a doctor’s or dentist’s office: customer no-shows for appointments. 

There “are instances where appointments are booked, but for whatever reason, people are not showing up," she says. "And so if a vial that contains six doses has already been thawed and three of those doses, let's say, have been given, but three people didn't show up, then you do have extra doses left over that must be used within a very short window."

However, Wen believes that such situations will likely become rarer as time passes and the bar for eligibility is lowered.

“I think that we will have fewer and fewer of these instances moving forward because one of the initial problems with the vaccine rollout was that the eligibility was so strict that there was a supply-demand mismatch," she says. "So while there were many people who wanted to get the vaccine, the [number of] individuals who were initially able to sign up for appointments was much smaller. So you end up having a situation of people not showing up for appointments and these leftover doses."

In addition, Wen says, the forthcoming arrival of additional vaccines should help circumvent the supply-demand mismatch. The highly anticipated Johnson & Johnson and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines have less stringent storage requirements than the Pfizer and Moderna ones, so the pharmacists tasked with distributing them won’t be under as much pressure to do so as fast as possible. 

“The Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines, if they come on board, they can be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures for weeks and weeks and even months, and so one would expect the issue of potential wastage to be substantially less,” she says.

While Wen understands the widespread frustration with the staggered nature of vaccine distribution, she urges patience nonetheless. 

“At some point in the future, the next several months, it will be open season, and everyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get it,” she says. 

Individual states have paced vaccine distribution differently, but most are expected to enter Phase 2, in which members of the general public will be eligible for vaccination, sometime in the late spring or summer.

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. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 vaccinations in the United States​. Updated January 26, 2021.