‘Not worth the risk’ — Large crowds gather each night at San Antonio vaccine sites hoping to snare any spare dose

Liz Hardaway

About 1,500 people come through Wonderland mall at their scheduled appointment times every day to get a vaccine against COVID-19.

But there are dozens of hopeful hangers-on who weren’t able to get an appointment who nonetheless wait patiently for the end of the night to see whether there might be a dose or two leftover.

Wednesday night there were about 50 people waiting — a small crowd compared to most nights, according to Bill Phillips, the senior vice president and chief information officer for University Health, which is administering vaccines at Wonderland of the Americas mall.

For most of the hopeful, the wait is in vain. But for a few of the oldest people waiting, Wednesday was their lucky night.

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There were 11 leftover doses — one of the highest number of leftovers recently. Most nights, it’s fewer than that and some nights there’s none leftover at all, Phillips said.

The leftover doses are a result of people not coming to their 7 p.m. appointments. Vaccine doses are thawed out each hour in anticipation for the 120 appointments every hour. Whatever is unused because someone didn’t make their appointment by 8 p.m. will go to someone who’s been waiting who didn’t have an appointment.

“We will not waste a vaccine,” Phillips said.

Among those waiting Wednesday night was Maria Rodriguez, 57. Like many San Antonians, she has tried many times to schedule an appointment, going on online and calling, at the varous locations, to no avail.

“I’ve been trying everywhere,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez already contracted the coronavirus this summer, along with the rest of her family.

“My husband didn’t make it,” she said sadly. She and Rogelio Rodriguez had been married for 34 years. He died at the age of 65, alone in the hospital, she said.

She’s worried it might happen to her.

“I’m really, really scared to get it again,” she said. “It’s already been six months and I know I could probably get it again.”

“I’m afraid to leave my daughter alone,” Rodriguez added, tears in her eyes. “She only has me now.”

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Still, University Health officials are discouraging people from waiting in the crowd to see if they can get a leftover vaccine, because the risk of catching the disease in a large gathering is high and there’s little chance of reward.

“That’s not a great idea,” Phillips said. “You’re in a close proximity with each other and there’s no way everyone’s going to get that vaccine.

“It’s not worth sitting there and exposing yourself to others. It’s just not worth the risk,” Phillips said. “They’re safer if they would stay at home and wait until more vaccine is available.”

To determine who gets the few leftover doses, if there are any, staff look for the oldest people in the crowd.

“It’s the only fair way to do it,” Phillips said. They start with asking for people who are 90 and older, and go younger depending on how many doses are left.

“We understand that people are very eager to get the vaccine, but we would discourage them from showing up at the end of the night without an appointment,” said Elizabeth Allen, a spokeswoman for University Health.

“Please be patient,” Allen added. “How many vaccines we give out is entirely dependent on the state … And we’re giving them out as fast as we can.”

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At 7:51 p.m. Wednesday, University Health staff called for anyone 90 years or older, determining who should get the remaining 11 doses.

Once the doses were claimed, Rodriguez walked to her car, unvaccinated.

“I’ll have to wait,” she said. “I can’t keep putting myself in danger.”

But 70-year-old Thelma Gonzalez plans to continue returning to the mall — and other sites — to wait if she can’t get an appointment.

“It’s very frustrating,” Gonzalez said. She has been at the mall the last five nights trying to get a shot.

Terry Brito, 68, was waiting with Gonzalez, but this was only her second night. Since her husband had a kidney transplant, Brito has been going out getting groceries and other essentials. Her husband can’t get vaccinated until February due to his surgery.

“It’s important for me to get it now because I’m putting myself out there,” she said. She doesn’t want to bring the virus home to her husband.

Though giving vaccines is rewarding, Phillips said it’s also “heartbreaking” to see the number of people so desperate to get one.

“I can’t stand telling people that I know need that vaccine, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have any more.’ It’s very rough,” he said.

Vaccines are allocated weekly from the state, with officials not knowing how many doses they will get until just a few days before it is delivered.

University Health schedules vaccines through its online portal. As of Thursday, no appointments are available for the rest of the week. Once appointments are available again, University Health will notify people via its mobile app and through its online newsletter. For more information or to sign up for the newsletter, go to UniversityHealthSystem.com/Coronavirus-COVID19/Vaccine.

Vaccines are also available through the city at the Alamodome. No appointments are available as of Thursday, but to check on appointments and register when appointments become available, go to covid19.sanantonio.gov/Services/Vaccination-for-COVID-19.

WellMed is also administering vaccines, but all appointments are filled at the moment. To register in the future, call 833-968-1745. Phone lines are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.


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