The government’s botched vaccine rollout has meant that many vulnerable Americans aren’t able to get shots. States are scrambling for more doses, while frustrated seniors (with the help of family members) spend hours trying and failing to book appointments on glitchy websites that crash. But while the Trump administration completely blew its end-of-year goal to vaccinate 20 million mostly frontline workers and elderly people, a dystopian subplot has emerged: Relatively young, healthy adults who are currently ineligible for the vaccine have randomly lucked into extra doses that were set to expire (unfrozen vials of both FDA-approved vaccines are useless after six hours).
If someone doesn’t show up to a scheduled appointment, those who are in the right place at the right time (a pharmacy, or even a street corner near a vaccination site), or who have the right personal connections (a nurse friend), get a coveted immunity that would otherwise go to waste. The phenomenon is becoming more common and deliberate, with lines forming outside of D.C. pharmacies and hundreds gathering at Brooklyn vaccination sites, like concertgoers hungry for rush tickets.
Some consider these shameful stories of people leapfrogging over those in desperate need. But medical ethicists agree that anyone lucky enough to get a vaccine should take it. Turning down a shot does nothing to solve the federal government’s flawed system, which didn’t even give states the money or guidance to plan for extra doses. Still, the backdrop of mass death and bureaucratic incompetence has left the randomly vaccinated with complicated emotions. The Cut spoke with five of them about how the relief of immunity is mixed with guilt and anger.
“I knew the right person, and I was able to be in the right place at the right time.” —Richelle Carey, 40s, Texas, Journalist
One of my relatives has a nurse friend who gave my family a heads-up that she might be able to get us the shot if the hospital ends up with extras. She never knows if it’s available until the end of the day. My 65-year-old mom got vaccinated first and texted me one or two days later to say, “I think she’s going to contact you.” After a few minutes, I got a message from the nurse that said, “If you can be here before five, we can do this.” I got dressed immediately.
I was obviously excited. But I actually grappled with feeling a little guilty because I’m not in the high-risk group. I feel like I should be at the back of the line. I knew the right person, and I was able to be in the right place at the right time — that’s how a lot of the world works. That kind of messed with me a bit. But at the same time, I knew that it was going to go to waste if I didn’t get there in 45 minutes. And the more people who are vaccinated, the better.
Now my aunt is in the hospital with COVID, and I’m like, Whoa, should I have taken her to get it instead?, which actually just wasn’t logistically possible in the time I had. I feel bad that I have the vaccine, and my cousin’s 70-something-year-old uncle who is in terrible health hasn’t been able to get it. That is gut-wrenchingly sad and enraging. It shouldn’t be this hard for anybody. I’ve been trying to schedule shots for some of my older relatives, and I can’t. So my family has made it known to this nurse that if you have any more extras, we would like to get some.
I was hesitant to tell my small circle of friends or shout from the mountaintops that I happened to get lucky. It felt kind of insensitive. But when I posted my news to social media, people responded by saying they were having similar experiences, and I thought, Okay, I don’t have anything to be ashamed of. I have chosen to try and squash those feelings of guilt because it’s not healthy. They come from how dysfunctional the whole process is. If the Trump administration had been competent and cared, none of this would be as bad. And, actually, quite frankly, I have gotten a little closer to just feeling relieved that I have it.
“I was like, Is this a scam?” —Ricardo Sheler, 18, New York, Student
My parents were driving me from D.C. to check into my NYU dorm for the start of second semester. We were running an hour and a half late, which I thought would delay my mandatory COVID-19 test and the start of my quarantine. I step out of the car and start stretching, and 40 seconds later, this guy runs out of the alley next to my dorm. He comes up to us and is like, “Do you want to get vaccinated for COVID?” And I’m thinking, Yo, what? Who is this guy? Is this real? I just kind of look to my parents and I’m like, “Ugh, you guys want to get vaccinated?” But they already had COVID-19 and were just so passive about it. The guy was so frantic! He’s like, “We have one dose up, you gotta come!” He told me later he was running throughout the streets trying to find people. So we’re sprinting down this dark alleyway to the vaccination building. In the back of my mind, I was like, Is this a scam? Like, this would be a really good time to kidnap me. I’m a very trusting person at times, but it helped that he was wearing a face mask, face shield, and a bright orange vest. It seemed like he was a legit worker for a vaccine center.
When I got ushered in, I saw a bunch of security officers and health-care workers, and that’s when it kind of hit me: Oh, wait, he’s serious. I was posting to Snapchat, like, “Guys, I’m not kidding. This random dude picked me up off the street and is letting me get the COVID vaccine ’cause they were gonna waste it WTFFFFF.” My friends started FaceTiming me. They are letting me come back in 28 days for a second dose, which is crazy — there’s no take-backsies.
I was really ecstatic. This stuff is gold. It’s the most-wanted thing in America right now! I started talking with Justin, the guy who brought me over, and he was saying how frustrated he’s been the past couple of weeks seeing the doses get thrown out. No vaccine is wasted if it goes in someone’s arm. It could save a life, even if the shot should have gone to a more high-risk person.
Someone at my school posted to Instagram, “If you weren’t supposed to get the vaccine until much later, but you managed to anyway, don’t brag about it. You look like an a-hole.” She was obviously referencing me, since I had posted about it. My reaction was that she was kind of meaninglessly virtue-signaling. This is not to shame her; we had a conversation. But I don’t feel that I was bragging about getting the vaccine or talking about it in an arrogant way. I meant to express the randomness of the story and spread awareness about the vaccine so that people trust it.
I actually don’t feel guilty for a very specific reason: I am just a lucky bystander who benefited from a systemic issue. Instead of personal guilt, I feel ashamed that something like this can happen. And I feel the collective frustration of the people who have been trying to get an appointment and they couldn’t, especially in poor Black and brown communities. I got the vaccine through luck. I didn’t pay my way in. My dorm happened to be in proximity to this vaccination center, which was in a more affluent area of Brooklyn, and that’s where the privilege may come in. But I wasn’t someone who had some kind of backdoor access.
“I texted her and was like, ‘I can’t. This feels so wrong.’” —Susan*, 50, Washington, D.C., Journalist
I was on a Zoom meeting for work and got a call from a doctor I know. I picked it up and said, “Is this a butt-dial? What is happening?” And she was like, “We have an extra dose of the vaccine. The vial is open. We have asked everyone in the waiting room and called all the patients who we think are vulnerable, and nobody wants it. If you come in the next hour, you can have it.” My little 12-year-old son was home and he was like, “Go, go, go, go now!!” I literally left the house in my slippers. I had a kind of like Harry Potter–like notion in my mind of steam coming out of some potion that was going to expire any minute.
This doctor was an acquaintance of mine and called because she knew I have diabetes. She could have given it to her sister or best friend or whatever. There are people more vulnerable than me, but it wasn’t just random. I texted her and was like, “I can’t. This feels so wrong. Isn’t there anyone else?” And she was like, “I have tried everyone. You’re welcome not to come, but I’m going to throw it away.”
The day I got it, there was a weird injection of hopefulness, like this sort of rom-com moment where there’s glitter and everything. I haven’t felt that free and light in months. At the same time, I feel like I got in through a side door. It reminded me of when I was in Russia in the late ’90s asking someone, “How would I get that soft bread?” It was like: If you talk to this person or that person and put yourself in just the right place, then you’ll get the soft bread. I was also wondering, Why aren’t her patients doing it? Is there some weird inequality even in the fact that she was calling me because she knows I will not be vaccine resistant? I felt guilty because this is somebody who can reach me on my cell phone and knew that I would, and could, come right away. This doctor works in a clinic where her patients are mostly Black. She and her colleagues had tried to give the extra vaccine to those who are deeply vulnerable because they are wildly overweight, very diabetic, or have lung, breathing problems and offered to pick them up in a car. They went around and asked everybody sitting in the waiting room. And everyone they asked said no. So when you talk about feeling guilty, I’m basically benefiting from the kind of suspicion particularly poor Black people have toward a racist health-care system.
The vaccine hasn’t radically changed my life. I do have diabetes, and it just keeps me from feeling extremely vulnerable. Otherwise, nothing’s open, and none of my friends are vaccinated. There’s not like a secret underground restaurant where all the vaccinated people can hang out and party.
“It felt like winning the lottery.” —David McMillan, 31, Washington, D.C., Student
I got the vaccine on New Year’s Day. My friend and I were picking up some ingredients at a Giant Food to make coconut-chickpea curry for dinner. As we’re walking up to the pharmacy, we see a staff member offering the vaccine to an older lady. The woman was hesitant and confused. She said something like, “I just don’t know enough about it.” So the pharmacist turned to my friend and I and said, “Hey, I have two doses of the Moderna vaccine. We’re closing in ten minutes, and if I don’t give them to someone, then I have to throw them away. Do you want them?” I was just like, “Yes.” No hesitation there.
I was very, very excited. It felt like winning the lottery. We had just walked in to get groceries and walked out holding a million dollars. I posted a video of me getting the shot to TikTok, which went viral. A lot of people have messaged me to ask where the grocery store is, and it’s obviously not great for them to be waiting in line for eight hours to try and get lucky. But I’m glad people are excited. The fact that the woman ahead of me at the pharmacy was hesitant made me want to talk more about it. The only reason I was in this position was because someone else was afraid of the vaccine. I grew up in an anti-science, anti-medicine, anti-government kind of Evangelical cult community. Now I have a degree in physics and have spoken out about vaccine safety.
I don’t work in any sort of health-care context. And the pharmacist who gave it to me said she hadn’t even been vaccinated, which is absurd. I didn’t ask why, but that really surprised me. I was like, “Oh, wow, so you are looking out for other people before taking it yourself.” But I have young twins who are premature, so their lungs are a little more susceptible. Knowing that I’m not going to give them COVID made me feel happy. I’ve thought about whether I should feel conflicted, but there was only ten minutes before the pharmacy closed. Had there been more time, maybe I would have said, “Well, let me see if there’s someone else who wants it.” Honestly, I probably would have still taken it and then felt guilty that I should have done something different.
But, you know, the vaccine rollout has been so poor that just knowing someone’s getting it is valuable. And, to me, that kind of outweighs any other feelings. The fact that there’s no support to create some sort of a backup list for extras is ridiculous — the CDC could have known that this would be an issue. I’m a little worried about my second dose because supposedly there is no national stockpile. I’m thinking, Okay, if they’re reserving my second dose, does that mean someone else who needs it isn’t going to get a first dose as soon? That’s definitely something that I’m concerned about. I’m happy I got the shot, but I wish it had been for a good reason, rather than as a symptom of just abject government failure.
“There’s no guilt in that situation.” —Hannah Frishberg, 26, New York, Reporter
A few weeks ago, I went to get a COVID-19 test at a clinic in Brooklyn. I was waiting in the lobby to be called, and I overheard a man on staff whispering to his colleague that there was an extra vaccination dose. “Is there anyone in the building who wants it?” I started jumping and saying “Me!,” and he seemed kind of surprised by my sheer joy and giddiness. But he nodded and led me upstairs to the place where they were vaccinating people. I made sure that I wouldn’t feel guilty by asking if there was anyone else around who was more eligible or vulnerable than me. He was like, “No, the clinic is closing.” The only person ahead of me was the trash cans. I mean, wasting a dose versus giving me a dose? There’s no guilt in that situation.
It felt like such a historic moment. I wouldn’t shut up and was just rambling about how grateful I was that the nurses didn’t waste the shot. A representative from New York’s Department of Health told me they were disgusted by what happened and are launching an investigation into this clinic. [In Frishberg’s piece, the DOH said: “It appears this clinic did not follow state guidance which clearly spells out specific steps providers must take to ensure all doses are properly distributed.”] I think it’s pathetic. I think it’s horrific the way that nurses have continually had to bear the brunt of governmental failure throughout this pandemic and interpret an impossible web of contradictory guidelines. It’s become a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare where paperwork and eligibility are being prioritized over saving lives and vaccinating as many people as possible.
*Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity, and some names have been changed.