March 18, 2021

This 75-year-old nurse could volunteer to give Covid-19 vaccines—but couldn't get one herself

Daily Briefing

    When Martha Gallagher, a 75-year-old retired nurse, volunteered with the Delaware Medical Reserve Corps to administer Covid-19 vaccines, she was told she could receive the vaccine as a volunteer. She later learned that wasn't the case—and subsequently endured "23 days of nonstop searching," despite qualifying by age for the vaccine in her state, before she finally accessed a dose.

    New toolkit: Covid-19 vaccine communications readiness assessment

    Background

    According to the Associated Press, states are relying on volunteers to help with the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, helping with everything from check-in to directing traffic flow. And in return, volunteers are often given access to shots that they themselves—frequently young and healthy—wouldn't otherwise be able to access for several months.

    Some critics have questioned the practice, noting that many Americans who are eligible for the vaccines are still struggling to access them and that people could try to take advantage of the perceived loophole to skip ahead in line. But medical ethicists say offering vaccines to volunteers is acceptable, given how crucial they are to the vaccine rollout overall—and especially given that they are often interacting with the public as part of their work, AP reports.

    "There would be easier ways to game the system," Nancy Berlinger, a bioethicist at the Hasting Center, said. "If that was really your goal, [volunteering] could take more work I think thank some other routes I can think of."

    'An utter mess'

    Gallagher said she decided to volunteer because she wanted to "help get the vaccine out." And as an added benefit, when she filed her paperwork to volunteer for the Medical Reserve Corps, which is run through the Delaware Division of Public Health, she learned that she could, as a volunteer, get the vaccine herself.

    However, once her paperwork was submitted, a medical reserve program coordinator informed her that wasn't correct—and Gallagher was surprised. "You want me at 75 to give vaccines, but I won't be able to get a vaccine?" she said.

    In a statement, the Delaware Division of Public Health the agency "cannot guarantee vaccine to volunteers based on available supply at each event. Many volunteers have been able to receive vaccines if there have been doses remaining at the end of an event in order to utilize every single dose to avoid waste."

    But Gallagher was undeterred, AP reports. She began looking into other avenues to get vaccinated on Jan. 20, when the state expanded vaccine eligibility to people 65 and older and frontline essential workers.

    First, she registered on the state's website and was told that when an event opened, she would be prompted to make a vaccine appointment—but she never received a notification. And she didn't hear anything when she registered again a couple of weeks later, KHN reports.

    Gallagher then called the state's help line, where she was told that the state was out of vaccines and she should check with commercial pharmacies to see if they had any available doses. But Gallagher had already done that, checking various pharmacies in her area. But no matter what she entered into the online form, the pharmacy websites all delivered the same rejection notice.

    "The only response I would get is 'There are no vaccines within 25 miles,'" she said. "So basically, it's an utter mess and I don't know what they're ever going to get this straightened out."

    Gallagher had even befriended a Walmart pharmacist in the area, who told her he would call if a dose became available—but he never called. And when she finally saw—and clicked on—an available slot on Walgreens website, "the whole bloody site disappeared," she said. "It's like peeling my face on a daily basis."

    Finally, Gallagher's luck changed. She had, in January, made an appointment for February 11 with a Rite Aid in another town. She had assumed that appointment wasn't valid, though, because she never received confirmation. But it snowed that day, so she decided to check it out anyway. She figured someone else might cancel due to the weather conditions. Sure enough, while she was right about her appointment never being finalized, someone else did skip their appointment and left an opening in the schedule. And as a result, after "23 nonstop days of searching," Gallagher was finally able to get her first dose, KHN reports (Knight, Kaiser Health News, 3/11; Tang/Valdes, Associated Press, 3/10).

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