Future Tense

How a College Student Became a Nurse’s Envoy for Distributing Vaccine Doses

A pile of empty vaccine vials
A vaccine surplus is stressful when you can’t get rid of all the doses. Christof Stache/Getty Images

When Oliver (not his real name) went to get his vaccine on March 22—an extra dose appointment he had scored through a friend—he didn’t know all that he was signing up for. Oliver has completed two years at Yale and is living off campus in New Haven during a mid- college gap year. When he arrived at the vaccine clinic, a 20-minute walk downtown from Yale’s campus, with only a California ID card, he was initially rejected. But the nurse there, Nurse G, whose initial has been changed for anonymity, worked out how to sign him up as a Connecticut resident and administered his vaccine.

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The next day, Oliver received a call from Nurse G. She had his number from when he had made the appointment. She had an extra vaccine available and wanted to know whether Oliver had any friends who wanted it. Oliver missed the call, and when he returned it 10 minutes later, the vaccine was gone. Nurse G said she would tell him the next time it happened. Oliver lives with 10 other people, most of whom hadn’t yet been vaccinated because they weren’t yet eligible in Connecticut. Now, Oliver had a pipeline to getting them.

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“I felt like she was doing me a huge favor and gave me this really incredible gift that I could distribute to friends of mine who also need vaccines,” Oliver says. Over the next week and a half, he kept his phone with him at all times so he wouldn’t miss Nurse G’s calls. He got most all of his friends vaccinated. After April 1, everyone in Connecticut was eligible, and the people close to him who hadn’t secured one of his extra doses had been able to schedule an appointment the traditional route. Once eligibility opened up, Yale helped facilitate students (both enrolled and on leave) schedule appointments through Yale New Haven Health—as well as at local CVS and Walgreens—with an organized vaccine scheduling website featuring appointment links and university hotline phone numbers.

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But Nurse G kept calling Oliver—with more and more extra doses available each day. She wanted 10 people immediately to come to her facility one day. Fifteen the next.

He spammed his group chats for school clubs, sports teams, and his fraternity. But he quickly exhausted them. He told his friends, now already vaccinated, to tell their friends. Oliver’s number started getting passed around. A professor called him one day. People he hadn’t spoken to since freshman year texted him. One guy stopped him on the street and said, “I heard you’re the vaccine plug.” Over the course of the first week, Oliver got close to 50 people vaccinated.

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After a couple of weeks, Oliver’s network was vaxxed up and tapped out. So was his network’s network. Nurse G would call him asking for 10 patients to use up her leftover doses, and Oliver would only be able to secure two or three people. He tried to get people in New Haven, beyond Yale’s campus, vaccinated and attempted to contact local community representatives, but nothing came of it. More than half of Connecticut’s population has received at least one shot. And there are nine accessible vaccination distribution sites in New Haven alone.

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At first it would only take Oliver 15 minutes to fill a dozen spots, but as time wore on, he would spend about an hour a day trying to secure vaccines—pausing meetings, leaving lunches, skipping dinner in order to do so.

“I was surprised how quickly the weight of the vaccine changed. It started as something invaluable,” he says. But it soon became so difficult to distribute that it turned into an unwanted chore, something that Nurse G, and by extension Oliver himself, were desperate to get rid of by any means possible. Nurse G couldn’t leave the clinic until the quota of vaccines on-hand had been distributed, and Oliver wanted to help make her nights shorter. “If this nurse is calling me—the most extraneous person on the planet—to give out vaccines, it seems like there is definitely no proper infrastructure set up for what to do with leftovers,” he says. Although some sites like Dr. B and “vaccine hunter” Facebook groups, as well as Yale’s COVID- 19 Vaccine Standby Program, have attempted to connect available doses with people in need, small vaccine clinics, like Nurse G’s, often get left behind.

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Oliver’s experience mirrors something happening nationwide, according to CDC data: The rate of vaccination in the U.S. is dropping. “About 3 million Americans are getting vaccinated daily, an 11 percent decrease in the seven-day average of daily shots administered over the past week,” the Washington Post reported Wednesday. About half of Americans have already received at least one dose, and it in many cases those who haven’t don’t want to, can’t access vaccination easily, or simply haven’t gotten around to it yet.

As of Thursday, Oliver hadn’t heard from Nurse G in more than a week—she is traveling out of the country right now. But he says he is prepared to answer her next call, whenever that may be. His work with Nurse G has crystalized for him that “the arms of distribution aren’t reaching out in the right directions. And the information isn’t getting through to people in the right ways.” Unless, of course, you’re in one of Oliver’s group chats.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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