Part 1: The OpportunityAs a healthy 42-year-old woman who works from home, I am one of the last groups eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine. Knowing this, and wanting to help my state speed up a slow roll-out, I was thrilled when my local hospital system, Prisma, offered opportunities to volunteer at vaccination sites, and in return, if there were enough supplies, receive a vaccine at the end of your shift. I signed up the first few minutes the program was opened, a Friday at 5 p.m., and reported to a vaccination clinic the following Monday, Feb. 1. I note my privilege here that I could take a full day off from work and childcare responsibilities with almost no notice in order to take this open volunteer slot. The clinic was inside the hospital to vaccinate hospital employees only. It seemed strange to be volunteering my time for a corporate entity to vaccinate its own employees, but I was still happy to be helping healthcare workers. I worked most of the day entering people into the VAMS system. It was a long but enjoyable shift.
The woman running the clinic did not know who I or the other two volunteers were, had no sign-in information for us, and did not realize we were unpaid. Thankfully, at the end of the day, we were allowed to receive the last few remaining vaccines. I was overjoyed, but also felt guilty to have “jumped the line,” so I made plans to volunteer regularly at other clinics (I was able to schedule at least one more slot before they all filled up). Unfortunately, by the time I got home that evening, Prisma had shut down the volunteer program. Perhaps due to vaccine shortages, unreliable volunteers gaming the system, or the poorly run nature of the entire volunteer system, I’ll never know why – but I was stuck with one vaccine and no more opportunities to help. The guilt was heavy.
Part 2: Waiting to HelpWithin 5 hours of my first shot, I went into VAMS to sign up for my second shot (guilty or not, I still medically needed a second shot). There was exactly ONE available Pfizer vaccine appointment within 50 miles of my house. I signed up to get my second shot 29 days after my first at a rehab hospital a 30-minute drive from my house. As I waited, I continued to refresh the volunteer app, hoping for available opportunities, but nothing surfaced. I showed up for the one other volunteer slot I’d been scheduled for, only to find out that they were out of vaccines that day and that they had no record of me as a volunteer, and were now only using paid employees. I was never told any of this. The clinic coordinator had zero information as well.
Finally, about three weeks later, an email came in from DHEC, our state health agency. They were recruiting members for the Upstate Public Health Reserve Corps, our regional Medical Reserve Corps unit, and they needed administrative volunteers, not just medical ones. I signed up and was sent a form to get a background check and list my vaccine history (in other words, the steps I would have expected from the first volunteer call). This all felt much more official. As of today, I have sent everything in and am waiting to be called up, hopeful that I can volunteer for large-scale vaccine clinics as the state expands availability. DHEC has also followed up by email to say that they’re still planning to use volunteers in some future capacity.
Part 3: The Second ShotThe week before my scheduled second shot (the week I was official eligible for it), the CEO of the rehab hospital sent a rather unofficial-looking email, cc’d to everyone who had registered for a vaccine appointment there (not bcc’d, mind you, which feels like a HIPAA violation?). She wrote in terse language that the hospital was no longer honoring appointments and instead we should show up in one of two 2-hour blocks on Tuesday or Thursday afternoons. I was annoyed but rearranged my schedule to show up that week, knowing I might have a wait now that my appointment wasn’t being honored. When I arrived, a hand-printed sign on the door said there were no vaccines that week because the state hadn’t sent any. I called a few days later and was told that about 12 vaccines had eventually arrived but had already been given out. A few days after that, the CEO again emailed (cc’ing) all of us to say that yet again, the state had not sent vaccines, so now all appointments would be in a 4-hour time block on a single day (the only day of the week when I can’t rearrange my schedule). At this point, my appointment in VAMS was officially cancelled. I immediately went to make a new appointment, and there were ZERO available within 50 miles of me at any time in 2021 (so it said). I expanded my driving radius and was able to find only two options, both at the same hospital in Spartanburg (a 75-minute drive) the next day, so I took what I could. Why is it so difficult to find a second vaccine when it’s medically required that I do so??
I had seen an announcement that Prisma was consolidating from 12 to 6 vaccines sites, so out of curiosity I went to the website to see what was still open. I learned that the hospital closest to me, Oconee Medical Center, would allow walk-in appointments only for second-dose vaccines more than 26 days after the first. In other words, the hospital recognized that they needed to fit in second vaccines in a timely way. So even though I had my appointment scheduled in Spartanburg for the afternoon, I went to Oconee in the morning on the chance that it might go quickly and I could avoid a 2.5-hour drive. I am thrilled to say they let me walk in, had a well-run, smooth and speedy process, and I was fully vaccinated within 15 minutes.
EpilogueI am lucky and privileged. Because I have a flexible schedule, a spouse with a flexible schedule, and some computer knowledge, I was able to exchange my time for a vaccine. I am also privileged that I could navigate a system that repeated made it nearly impossible for me to get a shot I needed. I cannot fathom how many of our elderly citizens are getting their shots, especially ones who cannot use technology or don’t have access to cars. I am also frustrated that there is a pool of willing volunteers (I had many friends try to join this effort), but we are not being utilized – at least, not yet. I remain cautiously optimistic that the state will use us if/when they launch a larger, more public roll-out of vaccines.
I am also full of joy and have already cried twice today with the realization that I am fully vaccinated. I am so grateful to every scientist who worked to make this vaccine a reality so quickly.