Mounting public eagerness to score a COVID-19 shot has spawned a gray market for vaccinations in Massachusetts in which people who show up at the right place and the right time can get their dose even though they’re not yet eligible.
The long line snaking around the clinic at the DoubleTree Hotel in Danvers on Wednesday underscored the growing number of vaccine hunters on the lookout for shots. People had flocked to the hotel after reports circulated of “extra” doses.
Though the state has detailed guidelines for who’s allowed to get a COVID-19 shot — mostly people 75 and older, health care workers, and first responders — there are major loopholes. For instance, clinics are allowed to give away “extra” doses that can’t be frozen again to whomever they choose. Once someone gets the first dose, even if it was from a clinic’s leftovers, they then qualify to receive the second dose.
For people anxious to get their shots as soon as possible, that translates to a constant watchfulness for clinics with “extra.” Or, as Howard Sholkin put it, “It’s very random, word-of-mouth, and chaotic.”
Sholkin, a 70-year-old Newton resident, directly benefited from the emerging free-for-all. He said a friend who had snagged an appointment for a vaccine advised him to sign up for a waiting list at a CareWell Urgent Care in Somerville. Neither Sholkin nor his friend is yet eligible for vaccines, but Sholkin got on waiting lists in Somerville and in Framingham.
”They never said what the waiting list was for, and I just assumed it was end-of-day leftovers,” Sholkin said. He said a friend he passed the tip along to was called back almost immediately for a shot.
The DoubleTree incident, which backed up traffic near the hotel, started when a worker told people who already had an appointment that extra doses were available and they could call family and friends to come and get vaccinated if they arrived by 4 p.m., regardless of age.
That experience highlights the increasing rush for leftover shots, and the lack of any uniform policies for managing the onslaught. Both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the only two authorized by federal regulators, need to be thawed before dispensing and must be used in several hours, or discarded. And state officials are eager to avoid wasting doses.
Marylou Sudders, the state’s health and human services secretary, said Wednesday that health care providers who have extra doses at the end of the day are now being permitted to inject them into residents who aren’t yet eligible.
Previously, various providers administering vaccines reported receiving differing state guidance about how to use extra doses at the end of the day. In one Jan. 13 advisory to local health departments, the state health department said clinicians should only give extra doses to people who are “closest to the current priority group being targeted for vaccination.”
Curative, the company operating the Danvers site, declined to explain the company’s policy for using extra shots at day’s end. In an e-mail Thursday, Miranda Gottlieb, a company spokeswoman, said, “The Curative team manages the inventory of available doses and appointments closely and does not foresee excess doses moving forward.”
Gottlieb said Curative had additional doses Wednesday “due to the cancellation of appointments from previous days largely due to inclement weather,” but did not say how many extra doses that entailed. She said the company didn’t want the additional doses to go to waste, so workers “offered patients who were already registered with appointments later in the week to come to the Danvers location to receive their dose” Wednesday.
Curative has a state contract to run mass vaccination sites in Danvers, Springfield, and one opening soon in Dartmouth.
Meanwhile, CIC Health, the Cambridge company running mass vaccinations at Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium, and soon the clinic at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury, has a policy to ensure that fewer than a handful of extra shots are left over each day, said Rodrigo Martinez the company’s chief marketing officer. The company, he said, uses a site coordinator to track open vials, appointments, no-shows, and even the weather to manage distribution so doses aren’t wasted.
For the few doses left over, he said, CIC has always managed to find someone to vaccinate, whether it’s a worker onsite or a person accompanying someone to an appointment, who may not fall into a current eligible category. The company does not use a waiting list and is unsure if it will going forward.
“We haven’t wasted one single dose since we opened and have done over 50,000 vaccinations since we opened” in January, he said.
By contrast, CVS, which is slated to start administering shots at 30 of its pharmacies statewide Friday, is giving its managers considerable wiggle room on extra shots.
“Our store teams will evaluate on a case-by-case basis how to most efficiently vaccinate eligible individuals with remaining doses,” said Joe Goode, a CVS spokesman. “This may include local ‘wait lists’ of eligible individuals if appropriate.”
Goode noted that each pharmacy can identify which people are eligible for vaccinations from CVS patient profiles.
“Bottom line,” he said, “we’re taking steps to help ensure that these valuable doses will be put to the best use.”
At CareWell Urgent Care, which is vaccinating at 16 sites in Massachusetts, people who don’t qualify for shots now can get a vaccination if there are leftovers.
“As part of efforts to ensure every coronavirus vaccine dose is used, there have been some cases where we have provided leftover vaccine doses to consumers who would not otherwise qualify,” Shaun Ginter, the company’s chief executive officer, said in a statement.
“We currently have a waiting list with consumers, listed in order of priority, that we call whenever somebody cancels or doesn’t show up for their appointment,” he said.
Among those who snagged an appointment from a CareWell waiting list is Bonnie Sashin, a 70-year-old Brookline resident. She got the tip about a waiting list from Sholkin, her friend in Newton. Sashin called the Somerville store last Saturday and it called her back, saying it would have an opening Thursday at 2 p.m.
That seemed odd to Sashin because she wasn’t yet eligible for an appointment and thought she was signing up for a waiting list if someone canceled on any given day.
“I said, ‘How come you are giving this [pre-scheduled appointment] to people under 75?’ And she said, ‘This is your lucky day,’ ” Sashin recalled.
But Wednesday night, she received another voice mail saying the store was “out of the vaccine,” and someone would call her back next week to reschedule the appointment.
“It didn’t seem,” Sashin said, “they were following state rules.”
Meanwhile, Sashin’s friend Sholkin is still on the store’s list, waiting to be called.