On New Year’s Day, it was rainy and cold in Washington D.C, so David MacMillan went with a friend to his local grocery store in Brentwood to buy ingredients for a spiced chickpea stew with coconut and tumeric. What the healthy 31- and 25-year-olds didn’t expect is that they’d walk out an hour later with the first of two Moderna COVID-19 vaccines coursing through their veins. MacMillan, a second-year law student at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law, posted a video of the experience on TikTok, which promptly went viral.
That grocery store shoppers are randomly stumbling upon COVID vaccines like Willy Wonka’s golden tickets is emblematic of America’s botched vaccine rollout, given that Operation Warp Speed drastically missed its goal of vaccinating 20 million people by the end of 2020. In reality, of the more than 13 million vaccine doses that have been produced and delivered to hospitals and health departments across the country, fewer than five million people have been vaccinated. The rest of the doses remain stored in deep freezers, where several million could expire before being put to use within a 30-day window.
Similar occurrences of frantic injections prior to the vaccine’s expiration date have been reported in San Diego, L.A. and Northern California. D.C.’s Health Department hopes to avoid waste, so if a provider can’t line up a health-care worker or first responder to receive an unused dose at the last minute, its guidelines call for the shot to be given to anyone who happens to be “in the vicinity.” As the Moderna vaccine is only good for six hours after the first dose of the 10-dose vial is given, pharmacists like the one at the Giant Foods MacMillan was shopping at don’t have too long to find a replacement. “The Moderna vaccine is valuable and lifesaving, and we’re happy to have not wasted it,” Giant Foods writes in a statement to me.
The root problem of the vaccine rollout, the New York Times noted on Thursday, is the American medical system having long prioritized medicine (i.e., developing vaccines) while neglecting public health (i.e., developing programs to vaccinate people). After all, it’s way more exciting to talk about miracle shots becoming available at “warp speed” than about expanding cold storage, establishing vaccine clinics and adequately training doctors and nurses. But as we’re beginning to learn, all three are essential to ending the pandemic.
As for MacMillan, I spoke to him yesterday about being accosted at the grocery store by a pharmacist desperate to give him a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine; why at least one person politely declined the offer; and whether chickpea stew is especially delicious after rescuing one’s sense of taste and smell from a global pandemic.
So you had an eventful New Year’s Day?
Haha, yeah, that seems to be the case.
What kind of grocery store were you in?
Giant is a big chain in D.C. It’s just your general grocery store — food, produce, a few home goods — but they also have pharmacies.
And it’s routine for them to be vaccinating people for COVID?
While hospitals in this area are giving out the vaccine to their staff, other medical providers who aren’t affiliated with hospitals don’t have access, so they’re getting vaccinated through grocery store pharmacies.
What were you doing that day at the Giant?
Trying to cook a curry because it was cold and wet outside, and we wanted to do something relaxing for New Year’s Day. We found all the ingredients and were walking past the pharmacy area when I overheard the pharmacist speaking to an older woman about the vaccine. That can’t be true, I thought. It’s not publicly available yet. But the pharmacist seemed desperate to give the vaccine to anyone who’d take it. I mean very, very eager. I heard her say something to the woman like, “Hey, please do me a favor and take this vaccine.” The woman, more than a little suspicious, was like, “What?!?!”
It was my impression that the pharmacist had been out there in the aisles for an hour trying to give it to anyone, but couldn’t get any takers. So she turns to us and says, “Hey, I’ve got two extra doses of Moderna vaccine, and I’m gonna have to throw them away if I don’t give them to someone today, and we close in 10 minutes.” We jumped at the chance.
Did it hurt?
In the hours immediately following the vaccine, I had a bad headache as well as muscle aches; it felt like I’d gotten in a small car accident. But that’s typical for me whenever I get a vaccine, and those symptoms went away by the next morning. My arm remained extremely sore for a while; it got worse over time, and by the second day, I couldn’t even lift my arm over my head. It’s better now, though. Evidently, the Moderna vaccines are particularly painful at the site because they use muscle cells to produce the antigens that trigger the immune response.
How much did it cost?
It was free. We went through the paperwork, and she made sure we weren’t allergic to any of the ingredients. My friend got the vaccine, then I got it. They had us wait for 15 minutes to make sure that we didn’t go into anaphylactic shock, and then sign paperwork allowing the CDC to contact us. So now I get daily text messages that ask a bunch of things, like, “Do you have any symptoms?” and “Have you grown a third arm yet?” — or whatever.
Was anyone else in the store interested in getting it?
It was New Year’s Day at five o’clock, so it was pretty empty. Everyone is social distancing pretty well here, so no one was really paying attention.
And it’s D.C.’s health policy to give the vaccine to anyone they can if they’re unable to give it to first responders?
Yeah, but not just D.C.’s. Since my post went viral on TikTok, I spoke to several different people who work in pharmacies all over the country who tell me that you give it out to the people who are scheduled, and if they don’t show, you inject co-workers and anyone who happens to be in the building. Then you start dragging people in off the street.
Why is there such urgency to use the vaccine?
The Moderna vial ships at subzero temperatures and can remain subzero for up to six months. Once it’s been thawed, though, it can only last for 30 days at lower refrigeration temperature. The vaccine has to be brought to room temperature before it can be injected, and each vial holds 10 doses. Once it’s been brought to room temperature, it cannot be re-refrigerated. So they set aside however many vials they need on a particular day to cover the appointments scheduled. In this case, two people hadn’t shown up, and she had this vial sitting there with two or three doses in it.
They have wait lists in hospitals because the hospital is dispensing the vaccine to its employees. So if someone misses their appointment, or someone’s not at work that day, you know the next person on the line to call. But for many other health-care workers and first responders, they’re having to go to grocery store pharmacies. And those pharmacies obviously can’t maintain any sort of on-call list because it’s not really feasible. This is how it has to be, and it’s very disorganized.
I’m glad that the D.C. Department of Public Health said, “Look, give the vaccine to anyone who will take it.” That was the recommendation that was made, and that was the recommendation that the pharmacist was following.
Did this experience make you more skeptical of America’s ability to vaccinate its population?
Decisions at the top certainly haven’t been great. The fact that we’re doing this at the grocery store because we can’t figure out another way to get the vaccine to health-care workers in Tier 1 is emblematic of a problem.
Are you now prioritized for the second shot?
Yeah. The pharmacist scheduled us for the second dose at that time. She explained that once someone has the first dose, getting them the second is prioritized because it’s one fewer person at risk. So I’m now in Tier Zero for the second dose. We’re going back on the 29th.
Are you relieved?
Absolutely, but I’m the last person who should already be vaccinated. I’m pretty damn healthy. I don’t have any preexisting conditions. I’m not immunocompromised in any way. I’m not in a high-risk industry. And I feel bad about that.
But I was still eager to get it when she offered. I grew up in an anti-science community in Kentucky. There’s a documentary about the science denial cult I grew up in; I’m one of the characters in the documentary. So I’m especially interested in supporting science and combating misinformation, which is why I posted the video on TikTok. I see friends and relatives on Facebook claiming that the vaccine is going to kill you, that we don’t know whether it’s safe, that it’s a microchip. Even the woman ahead of us in line was very hesitant to get it. And so, the more people who are excited about getting a vaccine, the better.
Incidentally, we made the dish, and it was fantastic.