INDIANAPOLIS — A grassroots effort online is helping ensure no COVID-19 vaccine doses go to waste.
COVID-19 vaccines require intricate cold storage to keep them viable. They also need to be used within a certain amount of time after a vial has been opened.
This means, on rare occasions, there are leftover doses at the end of the day that need to be used, or thrown away.
In Indiana, wasted vaccine doses are around 1/100th of a percent. Dr. Lindsey Weaver, chief medical officer of the Indiana State Department of Health, said the low amount is thanks to the hard work of clinic staff, ensuring doses are administered to eligible individuals.
But if there are leftover doses, a group dubbing themselves ‘vaccine hunters’ is trying to ensure they get used before they expire.
Midwest Vaccine Hunters is a Facebook group where people from Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan are sharing information about where to find excess vaccine doses.
Ryan Flamm joined the group a few weeks ago.
"I posted about Terre Haute because I have a bunch of Kroger’s around there and I was trying to get a vaccine at one of them,” Flamm said.
He learned that a nearby Kroger did not have a waitlist and called daily until he was told to come in.
“Friday my luck changed. and ended up getting the vaccine,” Flamm said.
Flamm is 23 with a lung injury, but does not fall into any eligible categories in Indiana. However, if he did not get that shot, it may have gone to waste.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, once vaccines have been thawed out, they cannot be refrozen. Both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines need to be used within six hours after a vial has been opened, otherwise, protocol is to throw them out.
“A vaccine in an arm is better than a vaccine in the trash no matter whose arm it may be,” Doug Ward, founder of VaccineHunter.org, said.
That’s the idea behind a nationwide effort led by Ward. The 25 year old learned of excess vaccine options while searching for an appointment for his mother.
“Here in Colorado it’s been really difficult to find appointments and she’s actually outside of the group that is eligible right now so I thought an excess vaccine is a great idea,” Ward said.
After learning of a ‘Vaccine Hunters’ Facebook group in New Orleans where people were sharing information on where to find doses, Ward decided to create a site for people to get to their localized info, VaccineHunter.org.
In just three weeks, more than 131,000 members have joined local vaccine hunter groups nationwide.
“All these little tidbits of information have really helped a lot of people get vaccinated and find vaccines that otherwise would be going to waste,” Ward said.
The Midwest Vaccine Hunter group has just over 3,000 members.
Joe Percore runs the group and has been impressed by its success.
“A lot of people have gotten vaccinated, more than I thought would,” Percore said.
Since the group includes several states, some people crossed state lines to get doses, but that’s no longer allowed in Indiana.
"We have informed clinics that we will no longer be administering first doses to people who live in other states,” Weaver said.
Initially people who lived in nearby states but worked in Indiana were eligible to receive the vaccine here. This was intended to ensure healthcare workers and first responders were covered. Now that a large amount of those populations are vaccinated, state health leaders are cracking down.
Ward said he understands why.
“All of the states are trying to get their citizens vaccinated not trying to deal with others trying to cross state lines to get vaccinated,” Ward said
While he’s glad to see how helpful his website has been to people, he is still in shock it’s grown so quickly.
“I’m a 25-year-old in Colorado," Ward said. "I never thought I would build a website that hundreds of thousands of people would be using to help find vaccines."
He’s also hopeful there will be a better more streamlined option for people to learn about excess doses in the future.
“Hopefully this kind of band-aid solution I’ve created is not really necessary later on," Ward said. "Because it’s working, but in the end I hope we can get some centralized system."
Ward and his business partner are asking that clinics and pharmacies give them feedback on how to improve the process so they can help others get vaccinated.