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Want a shot? Vaccination sites offer volunteers a chance to jump the line

When Pat Cook signed up to volunteer at a vaccination site in Westchester, New York, the mother of two knew that distribution was ramping up. 

But she wanted a shot sooner rather than later.

“I bought myself three weeks’ peace of mind, so I’ll take it,” Cook, 54, said. “It’s also been a chance to challenge my brain, see how the system works and be a part of the solution.”

As the supply of vaccine doses and vaccination sites has ticked up across the U.S., so has the need for people who can help in administering them, like checking people in or helping to schedule a second dose. 

Cook signed up a few weeks ago to volunteer, which required her to commit to three shifts per week for 90 days. She received her first shot in early March after she completed her third shift. On March 23, Cook’s tier, the 50 and up age group, became eligible for the vaccination in New York state. She still plans to fulfill her volunteer commitment.

“I figured if this is the way I have to do it, this is how I’ll do it,” Cook said. 

And though nearly half of states will make Covid-19 vaccines available to all adults by April 15, volunteers said they don’t regret not waiting.

“I am very eager to get back out in the world, and I do feel that being vaccinated is an important part of getting to that tipping point of returning to some semblance of normal,” said Natalie Terashima, who is in her 30s, lives in San Diego and has no pre-existing conditions that would qualify her for the vaccine in California. 

Terashima said she knew it would be a while before her turn came. At the end of February, she was able to start her first shift volunteering at a medical center in Chula Vista. After her third shift, she was rewarded with first Moderna shot.

Volunteers who are dedicating their time to help at vaccine sites in exchange for early access to the vaccine said it feels like the first big step toward taking back control, especially after a year full of rules and regulations.

Terashima said she noticed “a culture and energy of needing volunteers” and felt this was her opportunity to give back since she did not volunteer at all last year. 

“I had been chugging along at home and I thought why not help? It’s the tide that lifts all ships,” she said. “I can help others get vaccinated and get mine sooner.”

In Arizona, volunteers are able to get the vaccine by committing to just a few hours of help, as long as there was enough supply available at the end of their shifts. 

Kelsey Connors, 30, of Phoenix, volunteered on March 7 at State Farm Stadium for an eight-hour shift where she donned a bright safety vest and checked people in for their appointments. 

“I’m actually getting married in under three weeks and wanted the peace of mind of being vaccinated before our small wedding, especially because I am high risk,” Connors said. 

Arizona opened eligibility to everyone over age 16 on March 22. Connors likely would’ve been able to get an appointment had she waited, but she said she has no regrets.

Kelsey Connors in her volunteer vest.Courtesy Kelsey Connors

“To me it was a small sacrifice of my time to help our world get back to a better place,” she said.

While the incentive for volunteering in Arizona is now gone since everyone is eligible, volunteers are still an important part of helping the state-run vaccination sites run smoothly. The state is still welcoming the help, but is prepared to keep everything operational, even with  fewer volunteers.

“We understand that the change in prioritization and increased vaccination overall may cause a drop in volunteers,” Steve Elliott, communications director for the Arizona Department of Health Services, said in an email. “While that isn’t an immediate issue with staffing, our staffing contracts simply will bring in paid workers if needed.”

Mackenzie Bader, 27, of Phoenix, volunteered at a Grand Canyon University vaccine site on March 18, spending five hours checking people in for their appointments. Bader said getting vaccinated made her feel like she could finally plan for future events, but added it was also a fun civic duty.

“People were so excited and positive. About half were on their first shot and the other half on their second,” she said. “It was fun being in an environment actually talking to people and just feeling how excited they are to get the vaccine and about what they can do in the future.”

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