- There’s a legal way young and healthy people are getting the COVID shot rather than wait months.
- And they’re doing good in the process by helping vaccination sites run smoothly.
- Here’s how you too can help and score the golden ticket of 2021 — your COVID shot.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
In mid-January, 35-year-old Jenny Howard got a hot tip from her friend: two nearby county health departments had put out a call for volunteers at their vaccine sites.
Howard, who is completing her graduate studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, did not yet qualify for a vaccine but wanted to participate in the effort to protect her neighbors. After two volunteer shifts in two different counties, on February 25 she won 2021’s version of a golden ticket: a Pfizer vaccine injected into her arm.
“I might have teared up a little bit,” Howard told Insider. “It was really emotional.”
Howard is one of the thousands of younger and healthier people who have received their COVID-19 vaccine through volunteering at a vaccination site. Far from cutting the line, health officials see offering vaccines to volunteers like Howard as an effective way to entice the dozens —and sometimes hundreds — of volunteers needed each day to run vaccination sites.
But information about such programs is not always clearly or broadly communicated to citizens, occasionally by design. States and counties can face overwhelming demand to volunteer from people eager to score shots rather than wait months before they can get a vaccine.
In many places, volunteers are not guaranteed vaccines, though there’s a strong chance they could get a leftover dose when not enough people show up or some miss their appointments.
As an additional challenge, these programs may favor individuals who can afford to spend a whole or a half-day away from work, have childcare, reliable access to the internet, or other privileges that could exclude some other people from participating. The barriers in many ways reflect the larger vaccine rollout, which has progressed haltingly and favored those who can smoothly navigate the labyrinth of state, county, and unofficial websites to find appointments.
In some places, vaccinations are slow and shots remain scarce, especially for communities that have been impacted the most.
How to volunteer at a vaccination site
Insider spoke to five volunteers from four states about how they found their appointments, the tasks they had to perform, and when in the process they received their shot.
There’s no one uniform or national system for signing up to volunteer, and finding the right website for your area will take some sleuthing.
Some volunteers hunted down the information on their counties’ health department websites. Others heard about opportunities through word of mouth. One 38-year-old woman in Connecticut spotted a link on her healthcare provider’s website buried in the upper righthand corner of the screen.
Potential volunteers can Google their county health department’s website and check their social media accounts for updates. They should also search to see if their state, city, or local university, has created a program that allows people to volunteer and potentially receive a vaccine. Don’t be afraid to scour local Reddit threads or community listservs for tips.
California has specifically set up a website for people to look for volunteer opportunities. “Vaccinations for volunteers may be possible, but are not guaranteed at any My Turn – Volunteer sites,” the website warns. However, Californians have struggled to find any open volunteer slots through the portal.
In Arizona, volunteers are explicitly offered a vaccine by the end of their shift. Rhonda Oliver of HandsOn Phoenix, which is helping coordinate volunteers for two Phoenix-area mass vaccination sites, told Insider the vaccines were the “primary carrot” to get people to help. The sites factor in the number of volunteers when planning how many Pfizer vaccines to prepare for the day.
As many as 700 volunteers a day are needed to run the vaccination sites at State Farm Stadium and Phoenix Municipal Stadium in Phoenix, where HandsOn has partnered with organizers. She estimated that 15,000 volunteers had helped out at the two stadiums through their program. Demand for those slots is still high, and HandsOn has dialed down its promotion of open times on their social media accounts, but opportunities could still be sporadically available in the coming weeks.
Sign up for your local medical reserve corps
A more consistent way to get notified about volunteer opportunities in your area is to join your state or county’s medical reserve corps, if they have such a program. Officials will reach out to people enrolled in the program with various volunteer opportunities, and you don’t necessarily need a medical background to help. For example, here are New York City’s and Washington, DC’s medical reserve corps, which request medical and non-medical volunteers for a variety of public health needs.
The health department for Washtenaw County, Michigan, which encompasses Ann Arbor, drew on the state and county medical reserve corps throughout the pandemic and most recently to staff their vaccination sites.
Joshua Tucker, a 25-year-old graduate student at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, signed up for Washtenaw County’s medical reserve corps in May 2020, just months after the pandemic had begun. He first helped with contact tracing, and later signed on to track all the county’s volunteers at vaccination clinics.
In February this year, he volunteered at a clinic, which is how he got his Pfizer vaccine.
“The only way I was able to get a vaccine in the state of Michigan, in accordance with CDC guidelines, was to volunteer in this capacity,” Tucker said. “None of my friends are vaccinated because they hadn’t enlisted with the medical reserve corps to have this opportunity,” he said.
Washtenaw County had to stop accepting new volunteers to its medical reserve corps after word got out that volunteers could get vaccinated, health department spokesperson Susan Ringler-Cerniglia told Insider. But these people were vital to the county’s ongoing efforts, she said.
A total of 177 county volunteers worked 1,184 hours at the county’s vaccination clinics in January, she said. In February, those numbers jumped to 527 volunteers, working 2,033 hours. As of March 23, 88 volunteers had put in a total of 560 hours this month.
The work volunteers may be asked to do
It’s ok if you aren’t trained to administer shots or perform other medical activities, though officials need people with these skills to volunteer, too. The five volunteers Insider spoke to did not perform medical tasks, and instead conducted a range of logistical duties.
Shifts sometimes lasted a half-day, while others worked a full seven hours. One person helped check people in for their vaccination appointments, while another guided patients to the right rooms or waiting areas. At mass vaccination sites where people could drive up to receive their vaccinations, one volunteer waited outside to keep the cars moving and direct them to the right spaces.
Tucker, in Washtenaw County, supervised patients as they watched a brief informational video about the vaccine before they moved on to their appointment.
Each volunteer received a vaccine at a different point in their experience. Shortly after Amanda Morgan, 38, arrived for her shift at a Connecticut clinic, she was ushered to her vaccination by a security guard who learned she hadn’t gotten vaccinated yet.
Some volunteers received their shot shortly after arrival, while others waited until the end of the day for leftover doses that could have otherwise expired.
It was ‘kind of emotional’
Getting a vaccine was the ultimate reward for volunteering, but all the people Insider spoke to said the experience was an especially moving one.
Mary Kimball, a 35-year-old who got her vaccine by volunteering at the Swedish Vaccine Clinic at Seattle University in February, said the experience made her reflect on the pain caused by COVID-19.
“My grandmother got COVID-19 and is still in hospice care,” said Kimball, an Edmonds, Washington resident. “The fact that I still got vaccinated, with the knowledge of what happened to my grandma, and [what] has affected over half a million families in the US, if not more, whose loved ones had passed away, it was kind of emotional. It was a complicated moment for me.”
Others were thankful for the ability to get out into their communities and help after months of lockdowns.
“For a year, it’s been not doing things to be helpful,” said Morgan. “So it was nice to actually do something.”
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