I Was a COVID-Vaccine-Site Bouncer

The city tried to build a COVID volunteer corps. But the system wasn’t prepared for the demand.

Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images
Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images
Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

What everyone wanted to know was why the vaccine line was moving so slowly, and even though I was at the front of it, I couldn’t tell them.

It was about 30 degrees outside the Brooklyn high school, where a cumulative thousand people were waiting about 90 minutes for their second shots of Moderna, and the wind tunnel at the entrance, I’d been warned, was colder still. That was actually why I’d raised my hand to be the de facto bouncer of the day: the vague notion that it counted as ventilation for COVID-safety purposes.

It was February 10, exactly a month since New York had opened vaccine eligibility to people over 75 and certain essential workers. Most people could agree the distribution had been a debacle, although for sometimes contradictory reasons. Everyone wanted more vaccines and more distribution spots, but short of conjuring those up overnight, getting out faster what vaccines we did have could mean making the process less fair. (And what was fair, anyway?) The actual mechanics of distribution remained mostly mysterious. So the day before, when I’d gotten a text with a screengrab of an unofficial document that explained how to sign up for at least three volunteer shifts at New York City’s points of dispensing, or PODs, it was a chance to see it all from the inside, and to report on it.

I won’t lie, though. The last time I’d been anywhere indoors with more than a couple of people was the hospital where my daughter was born last June. What helped tip the scale to break our privileged isolation was the part at the top that said “shifts are typically from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and you’ll receive the Moderna vaccination shot at the end of your first day.” I told myself I wouldn’t be taking anyone else’s appointment since I’d only get the shot if there was enough left over, and that at least I’d be helping out.

It’s hard not to see it as a transaction, but the program had an internal logic — when you vaccinate volunteers, you create a corps of immune helpers to steadily hone their skills and take on bigger tasks in the future. I’d later find out that the CDC guidelines on setting up vaccine distribution even say that both paid and unpaid vaccinators and ancillary staff may be included as “critical populations” in distributing vaccines.

“When you see it for yourself, I think it will really dawn on you that what we need is war-effort level of mobilization,” the friend who tipped me off had said, romantically, “where every vaccinated citizen can help get someone else vaccinated.”

So there I was, double-masked with a face shield, abruptly reintroduced to in-person society, and announced to all comers as a flow monitor by my yellow vest and a sign hung around my neck with fraying twine. The pre-printed text said “I Speak Yiddish” (I do not); scrawled on the other side in blue marker was “I Speak Spanish” (I do).

That morning, we’d silently filed past Class of 2020 bulletin boards for our training. Yellow caution tape marked off most of the chairs; the ones where people were allowed to sit had printouts of masked stick figures taped to the back. The night before, we had clicked through an online module that explained who did what at a POD, a system the city already had in place to deploy for natural disasters. Now we waited for our jobs to be called by the leaders in blue vests, who were city employees seemingly assigned to that site for the first time. First they called the vaccinators, 18 or 20 women, almost all Black. People clapped, and my eyes filled with tears. It felt like those days when we’d cheer at 7 p.m., and I couldn’t remember why or when that had stopped.

Then they called the supply room, which had inexplicably assigned my husband, a professor of art, to the title of leader. He disappeared and returned with an authoritative-looking blue vest, which meant he outranked me. They needed someone to provide mental-health support for both staff and patients, and whoever had signed up didn’t show up; luckily, another volunteer had the required training. Many of my fellow flow monitors raised our hands when the coordinator asked who needed to be vaccinated that day.

We had our own training, on a tour that snaked through the high school. “It’s important to bring the energy,” our coordinator told us. “Greet people with a smile in your eyes.” She warned that it would be hard to tell people they couldn’t come inside. “Today will be fast, though,” she said, because all patients would be getting their second shot.

Not quite. The morning moved briskly. Outside, the younger white guys with buzz cuts twirled iPads and checked people in. My fellow flow monitor — Christian, let’s call him, a jocular Trinidadian man who worked for the city — waved people in, and I kept them six feet apart, made sure they were properly masked, and showed people with mobility issues to a room where they could go to be seen more quickly and wait in the auditorium instead of on line. Easy enough, until afternoon came and it started to feel like just about any line for a sought-after commodity in New York, except that this one saved lives.

The line soon wrapped around the block. Every half-hour or so, a supervisor with a clipboard would make it over to my spot and sigh. “You aren’t pulling enough seniors out of the line,” one would say.

The next supervisor would take one look at the room of folks with walkers and canes and wheelchairs and say, “That room is too crowded. Stop pulling so many people off the line.” Keep people properly spaced to avoid a superspreader event or let a bunch of 90-year-olds shiver outside? I’m a reporter. I could spot the angle: “Blaz Leaves Grandma Out in the Cold.”

Christian, my flow-monitor buddy, had a theory about the slowdown. “It’s the lunch breaks,” he said. “The vaccinators had to eat.” Inside the supply room, my husband reported, another delay factor emerged. The room operated under strict conditions. Each Moderna vial has ten doses — sometimes 11 if you’re really meticulous — and the company says that after the vial is punctured, it has to be discarded after six hours. The middle-school nurse in charge of the supply room had been tallying up inventory on a legal pad. She went outside frequently to count how many people were still on line. She looked up how many had canceled or hadn’t shown up; about 15 percent, my husband recalled. She kept track of how many vials were open on the floor. They were only allowed to open the fridge once an hour because of fear of spoilage, but when they did, she counted those vials too.

The policy was to open as few vials as possible for the vaccinators to pass around. Couldn’t they prefill the syringes, my husband asked? He was told it was against the policy. (I later learned that some sites elsewhere do that to speed things up, but New York City isn’t sure if the FDA allows it.) As the line languished, the coordinator of the gym floor where vaccinations were happening showed up at the supply closet to beg for more vials. All this sharing, she said, was slowing things down. The middle-school nurse said no. Worse than the wait, she argued, was waste.

Back at the entrance, I did what I could to keep it moving. An older Black woman in a quilted lavender coat seemed upset as she walked in. “I’m so sorry you had to be outside for so long,” I said.

“It’s not you,” she said. “That young man” — she pointed at a young white guy with a shaved head standing next to a friend — “cut me. And he’s lying about it, and he’s going to lie about it to you. He’s got no respect for elders.” 

“I didn’t know you were next!” shaved head contested, which sounded enough like a confession to me. Summoning my limited authority as flow monitor, I sent the two men back outside. They shrugged in assent when I told them I would send a solo woman in first to be a buffer between them and lavender coat.

Another woman, having made it into the vestibule through the regular line, was furious to see so many people who looked younger than her being escorted to the expedited senior processing. When I asked a third woman if I could send her to that room, she scowled. “I’m only 80,” she said. “I’m staying right here.”

I explained in Spanish to an upset woman that the system had erred in letting her make a second appointment too soon after her first, a glitch that I was told had since been fixed, and haltingly interpreted the screening questions for an older gentleman, wondering how it was possible the list of questions hadn’t already been translated into Spanish. “I guess I don’t have to ask you if you’re pregnant,” I blurted out. Luckily, he laughed.

“She’s mesmerized by you,” said a grandson whose bubbe I ushered to the expedited senior processing area, and who kept whipping her head around to stare at me open-mouthed. “She can’t believe you speak both Spanish and Yiddish.” I had been inside my home so long. I’d forgotten what it felt like to live in New York.

Blue vests work the door at a Brooklyn vaccine hub on Jan. 21. Photo: Kathy Willens/AP/Shutterstock

Vaccines are not the only jealously allocated commodity; information is too, in an environment where tweeting something out about leftover vaccines can cause an instant frenzy, and where whisper networks about app workarounds ensured that eligible people in the know were able to make appointments before the general public. This program, the Medical Research Corps, is not a secret, but it isn’t simple to sign up, either, and for probably obvious reasons, they didn’t heavily advertise that vaccination could come with volunteering. Getting that text on how to sign up for two New York state and city sites, including waiting a few hours to show up in a database and then inexplicably, changing my password, felt like receiving contraband. Could I share? The friend worried the whole system would go down if too many people saw it, but had no objections to me writing about it. That same day, the physician Dara Kass, who has been a volunteer vaccinator at New York City PODs and has 60,000 followers on Twitter, tweeted basically the same information.

There was another instruction document making the rounds, one that listed 32 steps to registering to volunteer. It was written by Brett J. Allen, a 30-year-old real-estate agent. When I called him up, he told me he found out about the program because last year, during the New York City peak, he signed up with the city to help tag and load the bodies of COVID victims into the refrigerated trucks that lined his neighborhood. It was, at that time, illegal to show properties, not that much was moving anyway, and he wanted to do something to help. He ended up not doing the mortuary shift to keep the peace with his three roommates on Bleecker Street, who worried about him bringing the virus home.

But he was still on that email list on January 6, when the NYC MRC sent out an email with the subject line, “We Need You for Vaccine Hubs!” The body read, “Life-saving vaccines for COVID-19 have begun to arrive in the city, and we are on the cusp of an historic vaccination campaign. It will be all hands on deck as the city attempts to distribute the first wave of vaccines to health-care workers and other high-risk populations.” Five days later, as more sites were added, another email went out, asking for more help. It said the city’s Department of Health had thousands of trained employees who were available, but they weren’t enough to “guarantee the functionality of numerous simultaneous POD sites.”

“You will be offered COVID-19 vaccine at PODs, but you are expected to fill at least three shifts,” wrote the director of the MRC. “You should only ask to be vaccinated on the shift before a day off from working in a POD, as you may experience side effects that would make it difficult to work in a POD on the day after your vaccination.”

Allen’s first shift was January 18, Martin Luther King Day, in the Bronx. “They had to move four vaccinators to another location because we were so understaffed,” he said. That, he said, is how the document came about. “Having just completed my first shift, the word I keep coming back to is ‘inspiring,’” enthuses Allen in the document. “Trust me when I say you will want to go back.”

He told me, “The vaccine is not provided to you in payment in this service. It’s provided to you to make it safe for you and the people going to the center to interact with 1,000 people a day. You have the most vulnerable people ever coming in.”

In every volunteer opportunity I’d ever been a part of, you made camp friends, formed quick alliances. To do so that day, when you even didn’t know who had been vaccinated and who hadn’t, felt aggressive and dangerous. Even holding the door open for the person behind you on the orientation tour could violate the required distance. I couldn’t discreetly murmur to my shift buddy about who was trying to cut and who was about to get out of hand.

Before my shift, I figured that the network effects, and the population of people able to work a 12-hour shift for free, would mean that the demographic would be whiter, younger, and healthier than the average New Yorker. (We only made it work with my mother being willing to watch the baby for 12 hours on short notice.) That was true of many of the other first-time flow monitors, but not the majority of the overall staff that day, particularly the city employees.

I did manage to learn a little bit about Christian through the chaos. He worked for the Department of Health. He’d already had COVID (early, asymptomatic) and a week earlier he’d gotten his second Moderna shot through volunteering. Not much would change, he told me, since his wife wasn’t vaccinated. But the vaccination site had been so desperate for volunteers that he had been frantically called the night before to help, around the same time we’d seen shifts pop up in the system.

At around 4:30 p.m., one of the iPad guys came by and asked me if I planned to get vaccinated. Mid-shepherding seniors, I spelled my name for him, and he put me into the system for a 6:30 p.m. appointment.

On my break, I checked my email and saw an automated message saying my shift in the Rockaways had been canceled. My brief post-break assignment was handing out pink #IGotTheShotNYC stickers to people who had just gotten their second shot, asking them to wait 15 minutes to monitor side effects, and encouraging them to sign up for the CDC’s side-effects registry.

By the time I recognized one of my fellow volunteers getting the post-shot spiel, it was well past 7. All of the approximately 1,000 appointments for the day had been seen, and a coordinator told me that everyone on a nine-member waitlist of eligible people had gotten a shot too. (I never found out how to get someone on this waitlist.) It was our turn to line up in the gym, with stations that looked like the tables we had in chemistry class. The vaccinators had written their names in red marker across their gowns.

“I felt guilty,” I heard one of the outdoor iPad guys say, “but they really needed the help.” A supervisor told him she’d heard a rumor they were ending the volunteer program for general staffing.

The sign said no photos, only selfies, so I took one as the needle went in, my eyes filled with tears again. Back in the auditorium with our own stickers, we were instructed to make appointments for our second shots on our phones — standalone ones, not in connection with a volunteer shift.

Four hours after we got home that night, at 12:20 a.m., we got an email confirming the rumors. “In the first month of the operation, you volunteered to cover nearly 5,000 shifts at COVID-19 vaccination sites in all five boroughs — that’s over 60,000 hours of service,” it read, and it said “your efforts are directly responsible for keeping some sites operational, and thus for assisting thousands of New Yorkers who would otherwise still not be vaccinated.” All that was to come to an end. “General staffing roles are at capacity for the foreseeable future. Leadership has decided that NYC staff will be filling in the gaps moving forward. For now, general staffing is effectively CLOSED.” Anyone with an appointment to volunteer that hadn’t been canceled would still be able to do their shift. This part was bolded: “Vaccines will be available for staff and volunteers on-site for those shifts.” Oh, and they still needed vaccinators.

If hoarding the information, at least in the short term, already felt dubious, managing to do only a third of my commitment felt like I’d gotten away with something I hadn’t wanted to. The next day, I asked the city department responsible for the vaccine PODs to tell me more. I told them I’d volunteered and gotten a shot, and that I wanted to make sure that I was properly describing the program, and I asked for someone to walk me through it. A few days later, they sent me this statement instead:

“We are grateful to everyone who has served New Yorkers during this effort. The NYC MRC has traditionally been used for medical/health-care volunteers. As the number of volunteers swelled — including city employees serving in the hubs — we went back to limiting MRC to recruitment of health-care professionals. If you are not a medical professional and would like to volunteer to help with our COVID-19 response, visit Help Now NYC.” If you follow that link, you’ll find general volunteer opportunities, few of them explicitly COVID-related.

All this essentially confirmed that volunteer recruitment had been a victim of its own success. This is what Brett Allen thinks, too. “The system wasn’t built for the demand and how it exploded,” he said.

When we first started talking, Allen sounded wary and a little defensive, so I asked him about it. “I’m concerned about the tone of the article,” he said. I reminded him that having done a shift myself, any criticism of him could be leveled at me. He took a deep breath. “You did the work,” he conceded. “This is not a back door. You saw the look on people’s faces. To me it’s really a serious thing.”

He has some idea of how word spread. He sent his document to 50 people he knew who had flexible schedules, including the one who, on February 7, republished it on The Stern Opportunity, a public forum for NYU business-school grads. I read Allen the headline on The Stern Opportunity — “How to Get Vaccinated” — and he sounded upset. “That person is someone I met at a dinner party,” Allen said. “That he would write that …” he trailed off. “In the end, some people are selfish, and for some people the ends justify the means. My only hope for people in that camp is that their eyes were open and they left the experience changed. That they got a window into what it was like. That they have more respect for people who do this every day.”

What we weren’t yet saying out loud was this: These vaccines are the most desired commodity on Earth, and there aren’t enough of them, and we were getting them. The early supply shortage was why my husband, who was technically eligible as a professor, had chosen not to take his designated turn for the vaccine because he isn’t teaching this year. In Israel, where I was born and where much of my family lives, the Pfizer vaccine is so abundant for citizens that bars are running “get a shot, take a shot” promotions. Before the country closed its airport to stem the flow of variants, I joked about flying in simply to get that jab. That was obviously ridiculous; 12 hours on a plane, just to start, was a needless risk when I could wait. But three times that helping out at the heart of things seemed like an acceptable trade. We have a baby and both work full time, and what limited child care we do have involves a high-risk parent, who we had to quarantine from after our shift until we could get tested.

Later on, another friend told me that this approach was all wrong, the moral math in which I implied I had taken the path of superior righteousness, when the system had so deeply failed. She was furious at me, not for getting the shot, but for trying to justify the choice to get it now in meritocratic terms. Everyone deserved a shot, she said: “It’s not a carbon offset.”

Maybe so. But that’s the thinking that got me out of the house, and I’m glad it did. We had tried to help in the ways you can do at home, virtually and monetarily, but it all felt abstracted. It’s easy enough to say, from stay-at-home life, that the vaccine rollout is a disaster, that the government has massively fucked up. Of course it did. That the understaffed PODs had to deploy almost overnight when we knew vaccines were coming is a failure at a high level, including the Trump administration’s at-best indifference to distribution, and at-worst deliberate sabotage. You could run down the list of the state and city’s failures. But that’s the beginning of a conversation, not the end, and this is where we are. Spending three days, or even one, actually trying to get the proverbial shots in arms is an exercise in humility, in the kinds of messy tradeoffs that happen on the ground. From line management on up, it was impressive what they had pulled off, however much more work it needed.

The day I spent at that high school was one keyhole view, as another friend who volunteered at a different site the following week pointed out, and he had another. (When my mother got vaccinated at the Javits Center, a state site, it seemed positively palatial in comparison to the scrappy city ones.) My friend’s site sounded more organized, and they even had a debrief session where people could suggest improvements. Outdoor heaters, proposed one volunteer, optimistically. It also had enough room for more people to wait indoors. A few sites also experimented with dedicating the morning hours to vaccinating seniors brought in by local community organizations, including Holocaust survivors at a hub in Coney Island. That week, most hubs had to reschedule their first-dose appointments after vaccine shipments were delayed because of bad weather. “My chief takeaway was this was pretty freaking hard,” said my friend, “and everyone’s doing the best they can.” It doesn’t make for a very good headline, but it’s true.

Dara Kass, who has been a medical volunteer at the PODs, told me she was sorry to see the program go. “Volunteering at vaccination sites has been an incredibly rewarding experience, and there are non-medical roles that I know a lot of people would like to do as part of the opportunity to get New York back on its feet,” she said. “It’s healing for the person who volunteers, after the wounds of the last year,” she said. The sites still have to scale up, and soon, she pointed out, supply wouldn’t be the problem. “We started this in a federal administration that didn’t care about us,” she said. “In two months, we’re going to be in such a different place than we are now.”

I hope so. Anyway, the system hasn’t let me sign up for more volunteer shifts since the program ended. The city is continuing to post paid jobs to support the vaccination effort, and sending its employees to work overtime. I understand why, but I wish they’d let us do those shifts.

I Was a COVID-Vaccine-Site Bouncer