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Utah pharmacies overwhelmed with calls from COVID-19 'vaccine hunters'

Posted at 10:03 PM, Mar 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-18 00:03:37-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Many pharmacies are now administering the COVID-19 vaccine in addition to their normal duties of filling prescriptions for patients.

As healthcare workers juggle this increased workload, they are being overwhelmed by calls from people known as ‘vaccine hunters.’

Vaccine hunters are those who are not yet eligible for the vaccine under the current state guidelines. They call pharmacies at the end of the business day, asking if any doses of the vaccine have gone unused and could go to waste.

Read: Some Utah businesses will require employees to get vaccinated

“We do not have a waiting list,” said Aubriana Martindale, a spokesperson for Smith’s Food and Drug. “We ask that customers do not call and ask if there are excess doses of the vaccine.”

Smith’s, which has the capacity to vaccinate about four people in an hour, has a process to make sure doses do not go to waste.

First, if extra doses are available, the pharmacy will reach out to customers who are scheduled to pick up prescriptions. Those people will be prioritized based on their age. If the pharmacy can’t find a patient who can come to the store, any unused vaccine will be distributed to employees who are eligible under the state’s guidelines.

The pharmacies at Harmons Grocery locations have also received a high volume of calls.

“If people call at the end of the week, we are not saying, ‘Hey, come in at 9 o’clock. Maybe we will have a dose for you,’ We aren’t doing that,” said Greg Jones, the pharmacy director for Harmons.

Read: Harmons will require masks, regardless of what Utah legislature says

The Utah-owned grocer is compiling a waiting list of customers who are eligible to receive the vaccine but are having a difficult time finding an appointment. This list is not designed for people who the state has not deemed eligible.

“We don’t want to have a list of 500 people that are 25 to 30 years old,” Jones said. “That doesn’t seem very productive.”

In response to an e-mail, the Utah Department of Health said, “We don't have any guidance for pharmacies on how to handle these calls.”

The statement added, “We have communicated that if providers have "left over" doses at the end of the day they should do what they can to ensure those doses aren't wasted, even if that means vaccinating people who are outside of the current eligibility groups.”

Those who are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine are asked to schedule an appointment online.

Links to local pharmacies, healthcare providers and health departments can be found here.

When asked for comment on vaccine hunters, Walgreens and Wal-Mart sent FOX 13 the following statements:

Walgreens:

"We send email notifications to customers who sign up to receive alerts about available vaccine appointments based on the area zip code provided when they sign up and their proximity to store locations that have incoming doses. Customers can sign up for vaccine alerts here. In addition, if anyone in our Walgreens database meets the age requirements, we reach out directly to inform them of vaccine availability in their area. If there are available doses at the end of the day, our pharmacists are embedded in their communities and proactively reach out to eligible customers to offer the vaccine."

Wal-Mart:

"Eligibility and Waste Avoidance Protocols have been developed in collaboration with state health departments with the shared goal of never letting a dose go to waste. Each vial contains multiple doses, and those doses are administered in accordance with CDC and FDA guidelines.
In the event additional doses from an opened vial are available and there are no scheduled appointments, we turn to individuals, including our associates, who fall within that priority to administer the remaining doses. If no one is available in that priority, where states allow, we move to the next priority."