The middle-aged couple had already decided they were going to lie. If the pharmacist asked if they had already gotten a COVID vaccine, they would say no. They were at their vacation place, in Massachusetts, and how would a staffer know what they’d done in their home state.
They had never before made a big medical decision without a doctor’s input. But panicked after a study suggested that the vaccine they had received, made by Johnson & Johnson, wasn’t very effective against the Delta variant, they drove to the pharmacy, breezily attested that they were not already fully vaccinated, and rolled up their sleeves.
“I feel like we have to fend for ourselves,” said the wife, who asked not to be named. “Who’s looking out for us? My doctor hasn’t called me. And the CDC keeps changing what we’re supposed to do.”
Vaccine providers in Massachusetts are not permitted to provide boosters, since they are not authorized by the Food and Drug Administration. But on Friday afternoon, news broke that the FDA is hastening efforts to approve extra shots for people with weakened immune systems, a move that seems likely to fuel desire among the general population, since it will be seen as legitimizing their efficacy.
With the Delta variant surging, and breakthrough cases in Massachusetts nearing 8,000, people are already deciding they do not have time to wait. Some are crossing state lines in hopes of evading detection. Others are darting into pharmacies where they’ve heard no questions will be asked or falsely declaring that they have not already gotten a jab.
People who got J&J may be particularly eager to get an extra shot (even though a new study, out of South Africa, shows it is effective against Delta), but as cases mount, and COVID closes in again, many who got Moderna or Pfizer are also interested, according to observers, as are those with compromised immune systems.
“People are trying to get that third shot by hook or by crook,” said Peter Grinspoon, an internist at Massachusetts General Hospital who’s been bombarded with “can you help me’s” from patients and friends. (He can’t — but more on the rules later.)
Let’s join Rebecca Hart Holder of Jamaica Plain, on her booster odyssey. She’s vaccinated, but after reading about J&J’s potential ineffectiveness against Delta, she — like many parents of kids under 12 — became worried about getting infected and exposing her unvaccinated children, ages 3 and 6, to possible health problems down the road.
“We don’t know what the long-term effects are,” she said.
But here’s her challenge: Hart Holder, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, can’t bring herself to come straight out and lie and claim she hasn’t received a vaccine before. But she really wants that shot.
Her first attempt was at CVS, where she made an online appointment — with her real name, but without mentioning her J&J shot at Walgreens in May. Before she could hustle in, the pharmacy ran her insurance. It was a no-go.
After doing research, she decided to hit a Hannaford in New Hampshire. “Identification and insurance are not required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine,” its website reads.
Nervous but determined, she strode in.
“I need to see your ID,” the employee said.
“Your website says you don’t need to show it,” Hart Holder responded.
The employee called out to the pharmacist. “Do you need an ID to get the shot?”
“Yes,” he said. “That’s the rule.”
At this point, even Hart Holder knew she was not, technically, in the right, either, but she couldn’t help herself. “No it isn’t,” she responded before accepting defeat.
After being contacted by the Globe seeking response to Hart Holder’s interaction, Hannaford added a caveat to its vaccine scheduler site: “According to the CDC and FDA, Americans who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 do not need a booster shot,” it reads. “As such, they are not being offered at Hannaford locations.”
Hart Holder herself cut short a third try, at a mobile site outside the Franklin Park Zoo, when her 6-year-old became curious after she overheard mom asking about ID requirements. “But you already have a shot,” she said, before Hart Holder hustled her family away.
On Wednesday, in an attempt to increase vaccination in poor countries, the head of the World Health Organization called for a moratorium on booster shots. But Israel has already started giving them to older people, and they’ve been approved in Germany and the United Kingdom. Critics of people receiving boosters while others await their first shot say it’s unethical. But in Washington, a White House spokeswoman said WHO is presenting a “false choice,” and the Wall Street Journal reported that the FDA expects to have a strategy on boosters by early September.
Right now, because of the FDA’s “Emergency Use Authorization” of the vaccines, the only way to get a booster — legitimately — is through a clinical trial, said Dr. Paul Biddinger chief preparedness and continuity officer for Massachusetts General Brigham.
But, he added, that should change this fall, when, if as expected, Moderna and Pfizer get full FDA approval. That will allow doctors to prescribe boosters and could prompt the CDC to update its guidelines.
But with mask mandates and fear returning, the temptation to go rogue is building.
Beth Rolfe heard the siren call in a Walmart in Hudson, N.H., on a recent night, when she was browsing birthday cards for a 1-year-old and an announcement came over the loudspeaker.
The vaccine is available at the pharmacy, the voice said, we’ve got walk-in service.
Rolfe is fully vaccinated, but suffers from chronic migraines and is terrified that if she gets COVID the headaches will get worse. She felt drawn to the pharmacy that night, but instead rushed home to e-mail her neurologist.
She hasn’t yet heard back, but is already envisioning how it will go. “If I’m stopped at one CVS,” she said, “it wouldn’t kill me to drive to another.”