Nadia Schmaler stopped at a Publix for a carton of milk and left with a COVID-19 vaccination.
The 21-year-old Gainesville resident and recent UF grad, who was ineligible for the shot under Florida’s eligibility criteria, heard of people who received leftover vaccine doses. Itching for a vaccination, she began her hunt, along with many others in the county and the state.
Schmaler registered for waitlists and searched online for sites, but her hunt ended after one day when she happened to be at Publix at the right time.
She was able to get her first dose of the Moderna vaccine around 6 p.m., and a pharmacist gave her a vaccination card allowing her to return for the second dose.
“I hate getting vaccines,” she said. “But this shot I was so happy to get into my arm; this feels so good.”
Facebook groups and vaccine hunting websites, such as vaccinehunter.org, tip people off to locations across Florida and other states where they may have a shot at getting spare doses that would otherwise be wasted due to the vaccine's short life span of about 6 hours. Each vial has more than one dose, and sometimes not all are used.
As of March 12, about 100,000 Alachua County residents have been vaccinated, said Paul Myers, administrator for the Florida Department of Health in Alachua County. Vaccination sites vary each week as the department spreads them throughout the county to reach more people, he said.
COVID-19 positivity rates were below 1% Friday for the first time since last spring and have continued to drop, he said. But until the county vaccinates 20, 30 and 40-year-olds, who spread the virus the most, according to Myers, positive cases will continue.
Schmaler thinks vaccination eligibility should be expanded sooner to get the vaccines to as many people as possible.
After receiving her shot, she wanted to help others and posted in a Florida Vaccine Hunters Facebook group where close to 10,000 people share information on vaccine searching.
“I’m happy that [the group] exists and that people are able to help each other out like that since the current system for navigating how to get a vaccine is not very user-friendly,” she said.
Some people are able to get a vaccine by signing up for waitlists at retail pharmacies.
Walmart and Sam’s Club Pharmacies began a waitlist for people who do not meet eligibility requirements. The Moderna vaccine administered by Walmart has a six-hour life span once opened, which means all of the doses must be used in a certain window of time before expiring. When appointments are canceled, the store sometimes has leftover vaccines, a Walmart employee who declined to be named said.
Myers said the county also has a waitlist to avoid wasting vaccines; however, because more than 600 people are on the list as of March 12, he doesn’t encourage people to try to get a vaccine through the waitlist.
Kaylee Whytal, a 21-year-old Publix pharmacy technician in training, said it’s difficult for people to get appointments at Publix because time slots open online in the morning and fill up within seconds. The website even crashed after too many people tried to sign up at once, Whytal said.
People from other counties travel to Gainesville to get the vaccine, she said. When these people run into commute issues, their appointments are canceled and their would-be vaccine doses are leftover.
She said while Publix employees on the waitlist are prioritized, anyone who happens to be in the store at the right time can be vaccinated.
The policy is different at every Publix store, but pharmacy workers where Whytal works often reach out to immunocompromised customers first, she said. However, people who are looking for a vaccine should call or walk into the pharmacy around 6 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. and ask about vaccine availability.
Those who receive the Moderna shot, which Publix pharmacies offer during the weekdays along with Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine on the weekends, will be signed up for a second dose and receive appointment information by mail.
A FEMA vaccination site in Jacksonville has also administered vaccines to people who are not eligible for the vaccine under state criteria.
The UF Chapter of the United Faculty of Florida sent a group of about 15 faculty members to the Jacksonville site by bus on Saturday, said Steven Kirn, co-chair of the university UFF chapter.
The group left at 7 a.m. and returned at about 11:20 a.m. fully vaccinated with the first dose of vaccines, Kirn said.
UFF took this opportunity because UF faculty members under current Florida guidelines are not all eligible to receive the vaccine, Kirn said. The Jacksonville FEMA site, under federal guidance, allowed the group to get vaccinated despite not meeting the state’s requirements.
“If the university won’t do it, then we will,” he said.
It cost UFF about $1,000 to send the bus to Jacksonville, he said. Kirn encouraged everyone who can find a way to get the vaccine to get one.
“Get it,” he said, “because you help all of us – not just yourself.”
Contact Lucille Lannigan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucilleLannigan.
Lucy Lannigan is a second-year journalism student from Key West. She works as a news assistant on the metro team. When Lucy’s not reporting, she loves to paint and spend time outside.