Medical Examiner

What It Was Like to Wait in Line at Brooklyn Army Terminal, Hoping for a Vaccine

“The staff there confirmed that this was real.”

empty folding chairs, spaced out, on yellow x's in a tent
Empty chairs at Brooklyn Army Terminal’s vaccination site on Monday, January 11. Shannon Palus

Late on Thursday afternoon, hordes of New Yorkers swarmed a 24/7 city-run vaccine site at Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, hoping to get a shot. “We need to give out 410+” said a message that was circulating by text and WhatsApp, presumably implying that the pharmacists at the vaccination site had found themselves with extra doses that they needed to administer before the shots expired. The message suggested that anyone over the age of 18 could try for a walk-in appointment.

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What happened exactly is unclear. “There is NOT available vaccine for people without appointments,” the mayor’s press secretary tweeted. “This was misinformation and the notification did not come from the NYC gov.” NYC Councilman Justin Brannan said that the announcement that was circulating was not an official one and that City Hall was “investigating its origin,” though he also acknowledged that there may in fact have been additional doses available. “This is why there needs to be an official waiting list for these sites,” he wrote in an email to Slate. “Not a free-for-all via WhatsApp.”

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People who were there say that workers at the vaccine site were indeed directing arrivals to a walk-in line. “I have never seen anything like that in my life—pure mayhem,” tweeted Jessica Valenti, a journalist and Brooklynite who went down to the Terminal as soon as she heard. “I’m not sorry I went—I have a kid with lung issues so I will follow any tip I can—but holy shit.”

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To get a better idea of what being there was like, I spoke to Henry Towbin, a graduate student at Columbia who spent about an hour and a half outside the site trying to get a dose. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Slate: How did you hear about the extra doses?

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Henry Towbin: I was working from home. I got a message from a family member who works at a school in the city—they said a nurse at the school had gotten a message from a friend who worked at the vaccine hub at Brooklyn Army Terminal. I was like, well, could be real, could be not real. But it’s a 20-minute ride for me to get there—worth checking out.

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I mobilized pretty quickly. I hopped in an Uber. I hadn’t been in an Uber in almost a year now. I went with my wife and my mother and father. We said, “Well, we’re going to run with it, because this could be a good opportunity.” Obviously, I feel like the vaccine should be prioritized to those in need, but this seemed like a good opportunity if the vaccines really were going to waste.

In New York, providers can get fined if they give the vaccine to someone who isn’t eligible. Are you eligible?

I am not eligible. In my mind, I thought, “If these are going to go to waste, I will jump on it.” I definitely think they should have had a better system. They should go to more deserving people than me. I was just thinking, “Wow, this is a stroke of luck.”

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What was the mood like when you arrived?

When I got there, there were two lines. It was a little bit of a mess. We got on one line. I went to the front of the line to confirm it was the right line, and the staff said, “No, the walk-in line is to the left.” I got on the walk-in line and called my family and told them to come over and join me. The line was relatively, not jovial, but people were chatting and saying, “Is this real?,” “How did you hear about this?” People were a little skeptical.

The staff there confirmed that this was real. They walked down the line repeatedly and made statements like, “We have extra doses, but we don’t know we have the manpower, we’re going to try and administer as many doses as we can to the people in both lines, prioritizing people with appointments, but we’ll try and slowly pull from the walk-in line as well.”

Did you have a sense that you might make it in?

[At one point], employees put an orange cone in the middle of the line, and said [to the person standing there], “You’re the last one who’s getting the vaccine.” The line kept on forming long after that. This thing definitely went a little viral.

But I was ahead of the orange cone. At some point when the line had really grown, someone went down and counted and told us, “You guys are about 40 people back” [from the front of the line].

What did it feel like to think you might be getting it?

I’d gone from “I’m going to spend the next several months camped out” to….I mean, not that I would change my social distancing too much. But definitely the level of anxiety would have been much less if I’d been able to get it as well as my parents and my wife. That would have been a big transformation. “Wow, this is a really huge change,” I thought.

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It sounds like you’ve been taking COVID seriously.

I’m fortunate enough that I’ve been able to not have to take the subway too many times. I do take the subway when I need to go to the doctor. I have the things within walking distance, I can comfortably work from home.

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When did you know you weren’t going to get it after all?

The guy who first put the cone down came and said, “There’s no more left, everybody’s got to go, everybody’s got to go!” Nobody moved. Everyone was just staying there. Then someone else came out and said, “We’re going to go until 8, then after 8 p.m. there’s a shift change, that’s when only people who have appointments can get it.”

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A bunch of us stayed in the line, we thought, “Well, if people are leaving and they have a bunch of these possible extra doses before the shift change, maybe we can get in there.” More people came and told us to leave, so we eventually left.

What was the mood when you left?

We were like, “What just happened? Well, we tried.” We were dazed by the whole thing. This was the most activity we’ve really done with other people in months. I don’t think we were all that upset or angry. It seemed like whatever this was, the intentions from the staff were good.

The only reason I got annoyed was [later] seeing the city fully deny that [there had been a legitimate call-out for extra doses]. Gothamist quoted me saying “it wasn’t a hoax.” The city needs to do a better job at this—I don’t appreciate them making it look like a bunch of people were fooled by some random text to go out and overwhelm a vaccine hub.

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Is there anything else I should know?

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We’re lucky that it was relatively orderly. The staff, even though they were overwhelmed, were kind and doing their best to be helpful. And also that the weather was relatively nice.

It’s also lucky that you have a job where you can take off at 4 p.m. to go try this.

I’m very fortunate where I have a stable job with that flexibility, A lot of New Yorkers don’t. I mentioned [the possibility of getting the vaccine] to the Uber driver. He didn’t even respond to me. He just shrugged.

You definitely don’t sound bitter for someone who went through an unsuccessful scramble to try to get a surplus vaccine dose that the city is now claiming never existed.

This was a moonshot.

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