There are two COVID-19 vaccines currently being distributed across the U.S.—Moderna and Pfizer—with others in clinical trials. However, actually getting people vaccinated has been an exercise in chaos. Beyond governmental disorganization, roadblocks to vaccination include severe vaccine shortages, supply shortages, hesitancy along demographic groups, and misinformation. In cities across the country, line-jumpers are also finding ways to get jabbed despite not yet being eligible for the vaccine.
Vaccine sites all over the U.S. are asking for help from volunteers to handle tasks like checking people in, monitoring traffic, assisting healthcare workers, sanitizing spaces and equipment, calming people before and after getting vaccinated, and data entry. Some of those sites have offered those who volunteer a vaccine if there are any extras left at the end of their shift, incentivizing the work to people who want an ethical way to get the vax before they're otherwise eligible. (In many cases, vaccination for volunteers is not officially codified or promised, and based solely on whether vaccines will otherwise go to waste.) While this is still relatively uncommon, it's become one way some are able to get jabbed while helping out during the pandemic.
VICE spoke to four people who volunteered at COVID vaccination centers to ask them about what the experience was like—and whether it led to their getting vaccinated.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Some names have been changed for privacy reasons.
Anonymous, 40, volunteer in Pomona, CA
Honestly, the possibility of getting the vaccine is what made me want to volunteer through L.A. County's public health department. Since leftover shots need to be used at the end of the day, I wouldn’t be taking a vaccine away from someone who needs it more than I do. I didn’t know if it would happen, because it was never mentioned on the county website or in any of the confirmation emails. Even if it wasn’t offered, I was still happy to be of service.
On the day I volunteered in January, I checked in around 7:30 a.m. Since we were disaster service workers, we had to take an oath to support and defend the Constitution. This was actually kind of moving, considering the disastrous state of our nation. We were put into groups, assigned our roles, and briefly trained. The volunteers were gathered and a couple people in charge gave some inspiring speeches to us about how we were fighting the virus and winning, little by little. They said we were making a huge difference.
The gates opened around 8. I confirmed patients' appointments, checked their IDs, screened them for COVID-19 symptoms, took their temperatures, and asked them about their allergies. Most people were anxious, and it felt great to walk them through it and make them comfortable. If everything was OK, I sent them towards the tents where they'd get shots through their car windows.
I was surprised by how many people who were there to be vaccinated were not wearing masks—I asked a few to put them on, but mostly didn't feel like getting into it and slowing down the line. Some people showed up without appointments and had to be sent home. Others had appointments, but didn’t have proper identification. I definitely let a few people slide who clearly needed the vaccine but might not have ticked all the official eligibility boxes, and that felt good. There was one woman who was very, very old. Her family brought her, and she only had this one ancient document from Mexico. Not even sure what it was—no photo ID, nothing official-looking. But she deserved to be vaccinated as much as anyone else, so I sent her through to get her shot. Did the same for some old Korean folks, too.
Towards the end of the day, they counted up the remaining doses. Eventually, the supervisor asked if I wanted the vaccine today. “Fuck yes” was my reply. I definitely had some guilt and mixed feelings about it—I'm a white man, and white people are getting vaccinated most while contracting and dying from the virus least. However, I was grateful to get a shot that would otherwise be wasted by earning it through a day of work.
After I got the shot, I was told to set a timer on my phone for 15 minutes and take a seat. In those 15 minutes, I thought about how surreal it was to have just gotten a vaccine for the plague that has turned the world upside down. I thought about my friend who died from COVID 10 months ago. I thought about what a sad and fucked up year we’ve all had. And I felt a little bit of hope for the first time in a while. I’d definitely volunteer again if I could get an appointment without taking someone else’s opportunity to be vaccinated.
Sarah, 37, volunteer in Charlotte, NC
I am a volunteer through Team Rubicon, a nonprofit that mobilizes veterans and civilians to help mitigate disasters and humanitarian crises. The Charlotte–Mecklenburg Health Department requested TR volunteers to assist with non-medical support for their COVID-19 vaccination distribution.
I was able to get a vaccine while volunteering, but it was never offered in exchange for volunteering. Receiving, or not receiving, the vaccine wouldn’t influence my decision to volunteer. I decided to do it specifically for a few reasons: I had COVID-19 at the end of December, and while I had what’s considered a mild/moderate case, it’s the sickest I’ve ever been in my life. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. My mom and stepdad are both categorized as high-risk. My sister is an essential worker. My step-grandmother died on December 23 from COVID. I think of all the people in my life who I love and want to protect from getting sick. If I can do something to prevent others from going through what my family and I have, then I’m going to step up.
A typical day consists of arriving around 7:30 am and talking through the current daily expectations. Volunteers are assigned, then assist health department workers and the National Guard with setup. Our appointments for vaccines start at 8:30 a.m. and run through 4:00 p.m.—it’s a nonstop flow of people coming in. After the last patients are vaccinated, we tear down, clean up, and debrief.
The patients who come in to receive their vaccinations have been gracious, kind, and extremely thankful. I’ve seen many tears of joy among our patients because they’re one step closer to their goals. Some want to see their grandchildren, for others, it means eventually being able to return to work or even to their native country.
Patients have also shared how hard getting an appointment has been. They’re relying on family members or caretakers to facilitate the process. I worry for people who don’t have a support system to help them navigate this.
Amanda, 35, volunteer in Nashville, TN
I signed up through the Hands on Nashville website. HON handles a lot of the volunteer efforts in Nashville, even if it's not a natural disaster or pandemic. They coordinated responses to the flood in 2010, the tornado last year, and the bombing on Christmas.
Making an account and registering with HON is easy, and they keep your info if you're interested in volunteering in the future. Once you sign up, there's a list of upcoming volunteer dates. When I signed up, the next three weeks were all full, but I signed up for a waitlist for every shift, just in case a spot opened. If it did, I would have to catch it before anyone else; I had to be at my computer and click through to the link within minutes, or it would be filled.
I have two friends that got the vaccine through this volunteer opportunity. Vaccines are not offered before your shift and are based on availability. So you don't know if you're going to get it or not before you show up. The possibility of getting a vaccine is why I volunteered, but I also like to volunteer and needed an excuse to get out of my house for a day.
I volunteered on February 2. My job was to guide foot traffic to the convention hall where they were administering the vaccine. I was really surprised by how slow my four-hour shift was: They had an issue with attendance, and the rumor was that almost half of the people scheduled didn't show up, but I don't know if that's true. I think I only saw a few dozen people come through, and it seemed like they were all getting their second round of the vaccine—not very many first-timers at all.
Because of how slow it was, they offered me a vaccine 20 minutes before my four-hour shift ended. I felt a twinge of guilt, like this is some way to jump the line, but they can't seem to get enough people to take it. I want to feel good about going to see my family this year. I got old parents.
Krystin A., 32, volunteer in Lubbock, TX
I'm a hairstylist and I run my own hair studio. Many people with jobs that are exposed to the public, such as grocery workers and those in the personal care industry, do not yet qualify for the vaccine in my area. While I have been able to maintain as safe a work environment as possible (with stringent COVID policies), a physical distance of six feet or more is impossible. I touch people for a living, so to say I have had increased anxiety and fear over the last year would be an understatement. The safety of my clients, my family, and myself have been my biggest priority.
Vaccination, as you can imagine, has been a heavy topic of conversation throughout many of my hair appointments; I first heard about volunteering and potentially receiving a vaccination from a client. Upon learning that there was an option to receive a vaccine while simultaneously helping my community, I knew that I wanted to take part—I knew that it would be the best way for me to receive my first dose of the vaccine more quickly. My client gave me the email of a local fireman coordinating the volunteer scheduling. I reached out and received a response the following day informing me of the date/time for the upcoming week that the clinic needed volunteers.
Working for my vaccine seemed like a fair way to receive one. Our city has been able to vaccinate in a very organized and efficient manner, so I did not feel as though I was swiping the opportunity from anyone else. My city has a population of about 250,000 people—small enough that there are not millions of people aiming to get one of the golden tickets all at once. From late December to January 29, we were able to distribute 20,224 first doses just through the Lubbock Public Health Department vaccine clinic where I volunteered.
I arrived at 1:30 p.m. and stayed until about 8:20. The main room functioned as the clinic, and was sectioned off into three areas by dividers. The sections were divided such that someone getting vaccinated would enter, receive a form to out, then drop off dirty pens at a table, and my job was to glance over their form then directing them to the appropriate table. Firemen administer the shots while volunteers transfer the information from the filled out form onto the vaccination card and also records when the second shot will be on the card. Whenever a table was ready to administer another shot they would raise a colored flag with a number on it.
All the volunteers who wanted to receive a vaccine were able to do so at the end of the shift, which was 2 p.m. to eight p.m. That's a lot of human contact and exposure. I'm not sure that I would have felt safe enough to put myself in contact with so many people without receiving a dose.
You forget the gravity of this shared human experience. Standing in a huge building filled with people wearing masks all lined up to receive shots in hopes to fight off a virus and stay alive and healthy was dystopian. It all hit me again: the heaviness of this virus; the reach of this virus. It was a very surreal moment.
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