The message began circulating around WhatsApp and Facebook just before dark. “PLEASE SHARE: We need to give out 410+ doses in next 4hours at Brooklyn Army Terminal (by 7pm), taking anyone in community age 18+, walk ins, or earlier than scheduled,” it read, followed by an address and a link to New York City’s official COVID-19 vaccine finder website.
Chaos ensued on social media, where people spread the word further and tried to make sense of what was happening at the scene. Hundreds swarmed the area, jumping at the opportunity to get vaccinated ahead of their designated rollout group (currently, the city is only offering the vaccine to “people 65 and older, teachers and education workers, first responders, public safety workers, public transit workers, grocery store workers, healthcare providers” and other frontline health workers).
Video from the area shows a snaking line of New Yorkers and dense traffic as people flooded in. State and city officials quickly responded, saying the message was purely false information and that there were not any doses available for walk-ins.
But similar scenes have erupted across the country, amid a vaccine rollout that’s slow, seemingly unorganized, and rife with confusion. In Washington D.C., people have managed to get inoculated simply by being in the right place at the right time. Young, healthy adults have recently received vaccinations at grocery stores and pharmacies after hearing in-store announcements at the end of the day about excess doses, which needed to be used before expiring. (The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines both have to be administered within hours of thawing from subzero storage temperatures.)
Fear that the US rollout will leave millions of doses to expire only increases the frenzy when rumors of extra doses spread. It’s so far been unclear whether locations with the vaccine are encouraged, or even allowed, to give out surplus doses near their expiration time to whoever can hoof it there fastest.
So when the message spread last night around New York City, late in the afternoon, it was believable that a clinic may have had excess doses that would expire by 7 p.m. that walk-ins could take advantage of.
Multiple New York city and state officials, including state Senator Zellnor Myrie and mayoral press secretary Bill Neidhart, jumped on Twitter to state that there were no vaccines available for walk-ins, ever. However, those who were at the site said clinic employees were separating the hundreds who showed up into two lines: one for those with appointments, and one for walk-ins, giving the illusion that some may receive the alleged extra doses. Video from the scene shows a doctor from the clinic explaining that there was availability for walk-ins, but that they quickly met their limit and could no longer accept those without appointments.
So what is the truth about expiring vaccine doses, and whether they may be given out in the event there aren’t enough appointments to use up a clinic’s allotment? According to Neidhart, Mayor Bill de Blasio told WNYC Friday morning that the city will run out of vaccine “next week.” In the case of an imminent loss of doses, it’s understandable that locations with excess soon-to-expire doses would give them to walk-ins in lieu of letting them go to waste. Senator Myrie told VICE that there were never excess doses at the Brooklyn Army Terminal clinic last night, and that he does not know if clinics will give out expiring doses in the future.
It is unclear whether clinics are taking action in absence of unambiguous policy, in order to maximize the number of people who get inoculated. New York state’s vaccine policy, at present, doesn’t address the edge case of expiring doses. Washington, D.C.’s vaccination site likewise instructs eligible parties to schedule an appointment, and makes no mention of walk-ins.
In a statement to VICE, Senator Myrie focused on the problem of misinformation: “The confusion surrounding this is understandable, and another example of the city and state not working in collaboration,” he said, “But just like we #StopTheSpread of the virus, we must also #StopTheSpread of misinformation about vaccines. It's up to everyone, especially those of us with broad platforms, to avoid sowing confusion and panic.”
The country is currently way behind the Trump administration’s goal to inoculate 20 million people by the end of 2020, with just under 12 million doses administered as of January 14. A few cities, including hard-hit Los Angeles, are loosening restrictions on who can receive the vaccine, with some officials criticizing the rollout plan for being too precious and slow, leaving potentially millions of doses unused. So far, over 60 percent of distributed doses have yet to be used.
Update: According to a city official who spoke with Gothamist, there were, indeed, excess doses at the Brooklyn Army Terminal on Thursday night, which were set to expire if not used that evening. New Yorkers who were at the site expressed confusion about the city and state’s insistence on “misinformation.”
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