Young L.A. ‘vaccine chasers’ crowd unofficial standby lines in hopes of a shot
There is, officially speaking, no such thing as a standby line for COVID-19 vaccinations in Los Angeles County.
But some clinics have soon-to-expire doses left over at the end of the day or during an early-afternoon lull, and word has quickly spread about this potential back door to vaccine access. Some who flock to the sites spend hours waiting in the hope of catching a lucky break.
Kedren Community Health Center in South Los Angeles and the Balboa Sports Complex in Encino have been at the center of the rumor mill in recent days, drawing large crowds that begin assembling before dawn. Some people arrive from neighborhoods far from the vaccination sites.
Those crowds have included seniors who, despite being eligible to receive the shots, had failed to secure appointments. But many of the others camped out in line do not qualify for doses under the state’s phased system of distribution.
Some expressed ethical qualms about potentially getting vaccinated before members of higher-priority groups. They did not want to take a dose from someone else, they said, but they had heard that vaccine would otherwise be thrown out.
“I think there are people who are so much more deserving than we are, and we just happened to find out,” Brianna Bane, 23, who works in social media, said Thursday afternoon. She was summoned out of the standby line at Kedren Health and into the vaccination tent a few minutes later.
Los Angeles County Department of Public Health officials said in a statement Friday that while they do not have standby lines, some people are given doses that would otherwise be wasted.
The department said it “does not advise residents to show up at vaccination sites in the hopes of receiving a leftover vaccine at the end of day.”
County health officials estimated the number of people being vaccinated through standby lines daily to be fewer than 20 or 30.
Tens of thousands of people face confusion, contradiction and chaos amid the state’s uneven vaccine rollout.
But Dr. Jerry P. Abraham, who runs vaccine operations at Kedren Health, said 40 of the more than 800 vaccine doses administered at the site Thursday went to non-healthcare workers who were younger than 65. The nonprofit health system serves as a vaccine point-of-distribution site for the county.
Sonny Tran, the site’s clinical operations lead, said 20% to 30% of people with appointments have not shown up. The clinic is administering the Moderna vaccine, which expires six hours after a vial is punctured, according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Abraham said Kedren Health experienced more no-shows than usual on Thursday because appointments had been scheduled through new CalVax software.
Countywide, the no-show rate has been less than 10%; this figure is taken into account when appointments are scheduled, health officials said.
The COVID-19 vaccine supply is extremely limited in the county, and only a small number of appointments are available for front-line healthcare workers and residents age 65 or older. Many frustrated seniors have been vying for the few available slots.
Abraham said healthcare workers and seniors remain the priority for vaccinations at his clinic.
“But there are times when we have no one here,” he said. “And there are times when your inventory has to be either put into someone’s arm or discarded, and we refuse to waste a dose.
“We’re not going to let documentation or technology stop us from vaccinating,” Abraham said, adding that those at the clinic are doing “everything in our power to make sure that our phases and tiers are respected and prioritized.”
The clinic is located in a part of South L.A. that is more than 97% Latino and Black, with a median income of $39,612. But many people who waited for long hours Thursday and Friday outside the clinic were white and came from beyond the surrounding neighborhood.
Early Friday morning, a woman in an Audi with a “Brentwood School” license-plate holder stopped to honk at people she knew as she circled for a parking space. Some people set up camping chairs, tapped away at laptops and read newspapers and iPads as they waited. A security guard occasionally walked down the block on Friday morning, whisking healthcare workers and those over 65 out of the general standby line to the front.
The majority of the “vaccine chasers,” as one woman jokingly called her group, said they lived on the Westside or in the Valley, though others hailed from downtown, Los Feliz and Echo Park, and a few from Topanga and Malibu. They had all heard about the opportunity through word of mouth in their social and professional networks.
“The moral question of getting it before somebody else was outweighed by the fact that there are doses being wasted,” Jasmine, a 28-year-old designer from Echo Park who asked that her last name not be used, said Friday morning.
As she spoke, the young man waiting just ahead of her dug a plastic fork into what appeared to be a to-go breakfast frittata. His meal had arrived a few minutes prior via delivery driver.
Multiple people remarked on how starkly the demographics of the line diverged from those of the neighborhood and expressed discomfort about that.
“I do feel a little weird. ... I wish it was something more members of this community knew about,” Caitlin, a 57-year-old actress from the Valley, said Friday as she noted the “array of expensive cars in the parking lot.” Caitlin, who asked that her last name not be used, had been waiting with her college-age son since 4:45 a.m.
At the Balboa Sports Complex in Encino on Friday, a line of seniors and healthcare workers snaked around a red brick building where vaccinators administered shots to people with appointments. But just beyond that — alongside the park’s tennis courts and baseball fields — a separate line had formed: vaccine hopefuls.
Young people, families and even seniors were parked on lawn chairs and blankets, waiting to see if there would be extra shots available for them at the end of the day. Rumors abounded, including one often-repeated anecdote about 200 people who lucked into leftover shots one afternoon last week.
“It’s kind of like a game of telephone,” said William Crouse, 32, who was working on a jigsaw puzzle with his friend Teddy Jones, 38, while they waited.
Behind them, a paper sign taped to a post said the unofficial “non-appointment line” would give top priority to healthcare workers and those over 65 before moving on to others. Crouse and Jones said they first heard about the possible handout of leftover doses through an Instagram post.
The current pacing of L.A. County’s vaccine rollout means it could be well over six months before eligibility opens up to Crouse’s age group, he said, so he figured he would try his luck at Balboa.
“If the goal is to get as many people vaccinated as possible, why not?” he said. “I’m happy to play a role in that goal.”
Not everyone was so young, or so hopeful.
Those eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine include grocery store and restaurant workers who live or work in Long Beach.
Josefa Celada, 71, joined the Balboa Sports Complex standby line at 9 a.m. Friday after trying and failing to secure an online appointment for seniors. The next opening she could find was in March, she said, but she needs the vaccine urgently for work. A nanny to three children, she was told by her boss not to return to her job until she’s been inoculated.
“I need it,” she said. “I don’t go outside; I do nothing. I’m so scared.”
Officials working the lines at the Balboa Sports Complex said seniors and healthcare workers would be pulled first from the standby group at the end of the day, but no one could make guarantees.
Selda Hollander, 86, joined Balboa’s standby line after having no success reaching anyone through the telephone appointment system.
She wasn’t prepared for the long wait, though, and didn’t bring a chair. She was instead seated in the grass, bracing herself against the cold.
“I can’t figure out if it’s worth it,” she said, shivering slightly. “I’m waiting for the vaccine, but I can get sick because of the weather.”
Meanwhile, Natasha Moini and Siena Deck, both 23, came ready. Parked on folding chairs, with sweaters on and towels blanketing their legs, they had snacks and were watching an episode of “How to Get Away with Murder” on an Apple laptop.
Moini’s mother was the one who heard about the Balboa standby line from a friend. She was able to secure a shot last week.
“You never really know, so we figured, why not come?” Moini said. “I mean, what else are we doing?”
Both Moini and Deck, who arrived at 10:30 a.m., said they would come back a few more times if they weren’t able to get vaccinated Friday.
“I’ll just feel better if I get it,” Moini said.
Additional reporting by Sandhya Kambhampati.
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