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Elation and disbelief among those who suddenly find themselves eligible for COVID vaccines

This week’s eligibility changes give almost everyone a shot at getting a shot

Brooke Roberts, a Boston University freshman student, showed her bandage after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at the Hynes Convention Center.
Brooke Roberts, a Boston University freshman student, showed her bandage after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at the Hynes Convention Center.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Admittedly, Ryan Bagwell has ventured into “dad-bod” territory.

At 42, he said, he is not in the same shape he once was, and the ongoing pandemic — which has spawned a steady stream of beer and late-night pizza — hasn’t exactly helped.

But Bagwell recently learned that his pandemic pounds have at least one benefit: They qualify him for a coveted COVID-19 vaccine. Under new state guidelines, Bagwell’s body mass index of 26 put him just over the BMI threshold of 25.1 to be considered “overweight.”

“[It’s] great that I’m eligible for an appointment,” said Bagwell, of Melrose, who was recently able to schedule an appointment for the coming weekend. “But maybe I need to start laying off the Dominos.”

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This week may go down as the one in which all your friends and family became eligible for vaccination, filling vaccine clinic lines with those who suddenly qualified for a host of unexpected reasons, ranging from old vices to a spouse’s military service to a couple extra pounds.

The state guidelines, which went into effect Monday, grant vaccine eligibility to people of any age who suffer from an array of health problems, some strikingly common. Nearly three quarters of adults qualify as “overweight” under the guidelines, for instance, while more than 20 percent qualify as former smokers — or those who’ve smoked 100 cigarettes or more in their lifetimes.

Health issues weren’t the only path to a vaccine. The VA New England Healthcare System this week announced that it would begin offering shots to any of the state’s roughly 328,000 veterans, as well as their spouses and caregivers. A Dorchester clinic connected to Boston Medical Center was offering vaccines to any Boston adult earlier this week until the hospital discovered the mistake.

And the state vaccination program continued to ramp up; on Friday, it reported 112,933 new inoculations, the first time to top 100,000. So far, 2,640,124 people have received at least one shot and 1,676,961 are fully vaccinated.

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In short, while the general public won’t technically be vaccine-eligible until April 19, there are now enough loopholes and backdoor channels to allow almost anyone who wants a shot badly enough to get one.

“This week has opened up so much eligibility,” said Dr. Shira Doron, hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center.

Across the state, many adults met the news of their newfound eligibility with a mix of elation, disbelief, and sometimes wry amusement.

For weeks, Matt Zagaja watched as friends and family members received their first and second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, resigned to the possibility that it could be May or even June before his own number was called.

While scrolling through his Twitter feed recently, however, the 33-year-old software developer from Boston discovered that his history of asthma had provided him a golden ticket.

“It’s definitely the only time it’s ever come in handy,” said Zagaja, who was able to schedule a vaccination earlier this week.

People lined up for vaccines outside the Hynes Convention Center this week.
People lined up for vaccines outside the Hynes Convention Center this week.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Prateek Poddar, a 28-year-old musician from Belmont, took to Twitter to express his appreciation upon realizing that his history of smoking had left him eligible for a shot: “I’d like to thank cigarettes for still having my back during the worst of times even though we’ve been amicably separated for over two years now,” he wrote.

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“It was elation, but definitely some stone-cold shock, too,” said Poddar, of learning that he’d be able to receive the vaccine. “It’s like finally glimpsing some of the light at the end of the tunnel.”

The shifting tide was evident in the lines outside hospitals and vaccine clinics, once made up solely of older and high-risk individuals but filled this week with adults of all ages, many young and seemingly healthy.

Outside Boston Medical Center’s vaccine site on East Concord Street on Tuesday afternoon, for instance, at least half of those waiting in line appeared to be in their 20s or 30s.

Dominic Mejia, 26, had been at home in Allston on Tuesday morning when his inbox pinged with an e-mail from his doctor informing him that, due to a comorbidity he hadn’t been aware qualified him for a shot, he was now eligible for the vaccine.

“It doesn’t quite feel real, to some extent, because I wasn’t expecting it,” said Mejia, who was able to quickly schedule an appointment and received his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine that same afternoon. “It’s a good day.”

The recent deluge, however, hasn’t come without complications.

Adherence to the eligibility guidelines remains largely a matter of the honor system, though the state questionnaire requires people to swear that they’re telling the truth. Still, that has made it easier for vaccine-seekers to fudge when it comes to their medical histories.

And just being eligible for a shot isn’t the same as getting an appointment. The deluge of younger users rushing to online groups meant to help older or less tech-savvy individuals track down appointments have, in same cases, taken time and resources away from those who truly need it.

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The “Vaccine Hunters/Angels Massachusetts” Facebook page was originally established to help people over the age of 65 and those with language or accessibility barriers. But the page’s founder says some of the newly eligible have treated the site like a kind of concierge service that can help track down a specific vaccine: “Any help for getting a J&J vaccine? My best friend decided to go ahead with her wedding,” read one recent post.

“There’s tons of entitlement” among the new vaccine-seekers, said Jessica Kosow, 47, who founded the 14,000-member Facebook group. She said some of them claim dubious underlying health conditions in order to qualify.

“The best is, ‘I smoke when I drink,’ ” Kosow said.

On Monday morning, said Kosow, some newly eligible people complained that they’d been trying for “hours and hours and hours” to book an appointment online. “I’m like, ‘Well, you’ve only been eligible for hours and hours,’” she said. “No one wants to wait another minute.”

It’s also possible that the flood of vaccine-eligible people could make appointments harder to come by.

Payal Salsburg, 42, who has worked as a vaccine hunter for about six weeks with the organization Massachusetts COVID Vax Help, said that there remains a backlog of roughly 1,000 people who need help booking an appointment, but who speak Portuguese and are in need of a Portuguese volunteer to aid them in the process.

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“We’re booking people, but not at the same level as we were earlier,” Salsburg said, because of the increased competition for shots.

Indeed, there is still plenty of work to be done.

Of the 1.5 million residents who preregistered through the online state system, only a little more than half — 800,000 — have been contacted so far with the opportunity to book appointments, according to the state.

But after more than a year of waiting, those who entered the fray this week were happy simply to be there.

Said Poddar, “I still can’t quite believe that it’s real, honestly.”


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com. Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.