Dalia Colón hasn’t seen her parents in over a year. So when her husband got his first vaccine dose Tuesday, she decided to try to get one, too.
“I felt like I can’t be the person holding back our family from reuniting,” said Colón, 38.
The multimedia journalist from Riverview is not yet eligible for the vaccine under state requirements. But she had heard about doctors giving out leftover shots at the end of the day to prevent doses from going to waste. She charged her laptop, packed some fruit salad and pretzels, and prepared to camp out.
“I figured what do I have to lose? I can make this my job,” she said. “I can go to a Publix once a week or a Walgreens or a doctors office.”
She waited for a while at what she thought was her husband’s doctor. Then, she realized she was at the wrong office. But instead of heading home, she figured she’d swing by the FEMA site in Tampa.
While Colón isn’t a K-12 teacher, the woman at the checkpoint approved her because she had a pay stub from a writing workshop she led with Pinellas County Schools. Within 30 minutes, Colón was walking out with a Band-aid on her arm — and an appointment made for her second dose.
“The first dose is like the golden ticket, and then you’re good to go,” she said.
Colón is one of many vaccine hunters around the Tampa Bay area who found a way to score a shot early. Over the past month, stories have popped up across social media from lucky recipients: They swooped in at the end of the day to grab the dose of a no-show patient. They scored a spot on a waiting list. A pharmacist took pity on them.
Most pharmacies have waste avoidance protocols to make sure that leftover shots are used.
“Each vial contains multiple doses, and those doses are administered in accordance with CDC and FDA guidelines,” reads a statement from Walmart. “In the event additional doses from an opened vial are available and there are no scheduled appointments, we turn to individuals, including our associates, who fall within that priority to administer the remaining doses.”
Publix also uses leftover doses to vaccinate its associates at the end of the night, said director of communications Maria Brous.
“Our pharmacies do not have a stand-by or waiting list for vaccine,” she wrote in an email.
Because waste avoidance protocols differ across pharmacies, online communities have popped up around the country to help others figure out how to get surplus shots.
Colorado man Doug Ward, 25, was inspired to build a website to help surplus shots get into arms instead of ending up in the trash.
“I was sitting on my couch actually in Colorado, and I was searching to help my mom get vaccinated. And I realized it was way harder than I originally had expected to find a vaccine,” he said.
He teamed up with Brad Johnson, founder of Facebook group NOLA Vaccine Hunters, to start vaccinehunter.org. Their website pairs visitors with a local group in their part of the country. There are now 50 Facebook groups across 37 states, with a total of over 485,000 members swapping tips. The Florida Vaccine Hunters Facebook group alone has about 8,000 members.
“These groups are becoming a lifeline for a lot of those people,” Ward said.
Vaccinehunter.org also offers advice for getting extra shots and guides visitors to sign up for Dr. B, a free online standby list that pairs users with local pharmacies that have leftovers. Over 1,625,000 people have signed up as of Friday afternoon.
“It is becoming increasingly difficult to get an excess vaccine,” he said. “But there’s still more vaccines being produced every single day. And every day is a new day. I always say keep trying.”
Thanks to word spreading on social media, Sarah Delhom figured out how to get her dose. Her friend posted about how pharmacies keep “waste avoidance lists” to allocate shots left behind by folks who canceled their appointments.
Delhom, 26, called all of the Sam’s Clubs in a 30-mile radius of her Wesley Chapel home and asked each pharmacist if they were keeping a list. Then she repeated the process for all of the local Walmarts.
“Some of the locations had no idea what I was talking about,” she said.
For each pharmacy that put her on a list, she saved the number in her contacts with the name COVID VACCINE.
Delhom didn’t have to wait long. The next day during a work meeting, she got a call. A Walmart in Spring Hill had an extra Johnson & Johnson dose. She dropped everything to make the 45 minute drive.
“I felt like going there took forever,” she said. “My heart was racing. I kept feeling like, what if I get there and it turns out I can’t actually get it? I just wanted it so bad.”
While she waited at the pharmacy to make sure she didn’t have a negative reaction to the shot, she typed up a post about the experience to share with her own friends on Facebook.
“I just wanted everybody to know that, hey, this is an option,” she said. “Because the faster we can vaccinate people, the faster we can get back to normal.”