Some Virginians are trying to game the system for early COVID-19 booster shots

“We just have to let them know they don’t qualify for it”
A basket of syringes containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine ready to be used at Richmond...
A basket of syringes containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine ready to be used at Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Va., February 2, 2021.(Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)
Published: Aug. 28, 2021 at 11:52 AM EDT|Updated: Aug. 28, 2021 at 11:54 AM EDT
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Over the last week, Dr. Henry Ranger estimates he’s gotten hundreds of calls about COVID-19 booster shots — not only from Williamsburg, where he co-owns a pharmacy with his wife, Dr. Jade Ranger but from Newport News, Hampton, Richmond and other cities across the state.

“We were the first pharmacy in Williamsburg to get the vaccine, so we’re really known for it at this point,” he said. The problem, for Ranger, is that most adults won’t be eligible for boosters until at least Sept. 20, when federal officials plan to offer them — eight months after a patient’s first vaccine series, they initially announced — following an evaluation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In the meantime, third vaccine doses are available, and recommended, for some immunocompromised patients — an announcement made just a week before officials outlined their timeline for booster shots. And while federal health agencies aren’t recommending those patients be required to show proof of their condition, Ranger said he’s had to take matters into his own hands.

“You can’t go by the honor system — mask-wearing has shown us that’s completely ineffective,” he said. “It’s tough to take somebody’s word for it. We’ve had plenty of people trying to deem themselves immunocompromised even when they don’t meet those criteria.”

Ranger isn’t alone. Since the federal announcement, providers across Virginia have reported surging requests for third doses, even if patients aren’t eligible. In the New River Health District, for example, pharmacies “have reported their demand more than doubling, much of it for third shots,” district director Dr. Noelle Bissell wrote in an email on Thursday. “We are getting calls to schedule boosters right at eight months in October-November, even though boosters have not even been formally authorized yet.”

Christina Barrille, executive director of the Virginia Pharmacists Association, said many of its members are experiencing the same barrage of requests. Troublingly, some are reporting that their regular customers — healthy adults — are getting third shots at other pharmacies.

“But booster appointments aren’t available yet,” Barrille said. “So when people say they got a ‘booster,’ it’s that they lied and attested they were immunocompromised to get a third dose.” Dishonesty has also been a problem in Bissell’s district, which is still conducting small-scale vaccination events. Some people will request — and receive — their first shot at the events. It’s not until afterward, when health workers are importing the information into Virginia’s vaccine registry, that they’ll realize it was actually the person’s third shot, or they received an mRNA vaccine after an earlier dose of Johnson & Johnson.

“It’s challenging because we are trying to remove as many barriers to getting vaccinated as possible while using the current guidelines for who can be vaccinated and get the third dose,” Bissell wrote.

The early demand isn’t a surprise for health officials after the frenzy of the state’s initial rollout when some Virginians drove hundreds of miles for a dose before their own districts expanded vaccine eligibility. Facebook’s “vaccine hunters” groups, which emerged amid the early days of competition, are already populated with posts from members reporting they’ve gotten their booster shots before the official recommendation.


.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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