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The Third-Shot Underground

Some fully vaccinated people have been getting a third jab before the government has approved it.
by Jim Swift
August 17, 2021
The Third-Shot Underground
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - AUGUST 12: Pharmacist LaChandra McGowan prepares a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic operated by DePaul Community Health Center on August 12, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Louisiana holds one of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates with just 38 percent of its residents fully-vaccinated. The state currently has the highest amount of COVID cases per capita in the U.S. over the last 14 days. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Gone, for the most part, are the days of massive vaccination centers administered by state-run websites. Now, in the United States, we’re lucky enough to be able to pretty much get the COVID-19 jab on demand if we haven’t gotten it—including at pharmacies and supermarkets.

But many Americans, particularly in the South, have yet to get the shot. In the nation as a whole, 62 percent of people ages 18 and older have received the full two vaccination doses, but in eight states (Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, West Virginia, Wyoming, Mississippi, and Alabama) less than half of the 18-and-up population has received both doses. Those who are vaccinated are very unlikely to die should they contract COVID. But states with lower vaccination rates and relaxed non-medical interventions—no masks, less social distancing, everything open—are seeing rapidly rising cases as the Delta variant rages.

Last week, the FDA approved and the CDC authorized third shots for people with compromised immune systems—less than 3 percent of the American populace. On Monday, the New York Times reported that the Biden administration is set to endorse a booster eight months after the second shot and “could begin offering third shots as early as mid-September.” President Biden and other administration officials are expected to announce a policy for third shots at the White House tomorrow.

But here’s a dirty little secret: Some people are already getting a third jab—and not just immunocompromised people, but people wary of the Delta variant and people watching the headlines about the vaccines’ diminishing effectiveness over time.

Turns out, getting a third shot is easier than you might think.

A Bulwark reader in Alabama—the state with the lowest percentage of fully vaccinated adults, under 45 percent—wrote in to say that her efforts to get a third shot were well behind the trend there—at least for front-line responders. Which makes sense: Doctors, nurses, and pharmacists, were among the first to get vaccinated, closely followed by the immunocompromised and high at-risk populations, and they have good reason to be proactive about staying ahead of the spread. Our reader’s husband is immunocompromised. She writes:

There’s a whole network of thinking people who feel like they have to talk in secret about securing third shots, while 6 out of 10 people in our state want nothing to do with any vax at all. We know Alabama has thrown away at least 65,000 doses so far, probably more.

One thing that stood out for this reader was that there was not an easy way for people to find out about getting a third shot, not on the typical delivery providers’ websites. Since the third shot regime hasn’t been formally announced, that makes sense. [Editor’s note: On the CVS website, if you qualify, you can now schedule your third COVID-19 shot.] It will probably take some time to be rolled out. But our reader informs me that, at least in some states, the process is not very complicated: It’s possible to walk into a CVS, show the vaccination record card confirming their first two shots, discuss with a medical professional the reason for seeking a third shot, and easily get it.

Plenty of Alabamans “are walking around not only unvaxxed, but unmasked,” our reader told me on the phone. “They are like walking weapons, and they are actively trying to harm me, our health care system, and our economy. I’m looking at any straw that can give me, you know, one more layer of protection against the dumbasses.”

That’s the rub: Shots are going to waste because of COVIDiots among us, and the Delta variant is spreading in no small part thanks to them. So more vaccine-friendly people, like our reader, rationalize that if those folks aren’t going to get their shots, then the next best thing—both for the individual and for the community—is for the already vaccinated to get a booster.

Another Bulwark reader, Dave Kitzinger, tweeted Monday night about his third jab, so I called him up. He reported that as a heart-transplant recipient, his doctor and his rheumatologist told him, “You need to go get this third shot.” Obviously, being high-risk, he wasn’t sure about doing so on his own until he was instructed, but he had been paying attention to studies and policies about third shots—mostly from Israel. Kitzinger told me that after getting the third shot, he was happy that it was registered in the system, so it could be counted and measured.

This raises another point: The failure of the United States to implement a vaccine passport or some other system for tracking who has received a vaccine adds to the potential confusion. If people go underground for their “second second shot,” does that get registered? How can that be studied?

And what about the ethics? If you get the booster shot, are you taking it away from the unvaccinated and being selfish? I don’t think so. By this point, there is no excuse to have not gotten a vaccination. We’re sitting on a stockpile with a limited shelf life and sending it to places where it isn’t wanted.

We should keep sending the vaccine to where it’s not wanted, and doing everything we can to ensure everyone gets it. But what’s needed now is clear guidance from the government for the rest of us who aren’t immunocompromised—or “dumbasses” who want to put others at risk.

When can we get the third jab? We’re not leaving anyone behind, they’re choosing that for themselves. If there is a bum rush for third shots—maybe as the school year starts, or if we see another late-fall spike—will the mass vaccination sites make a return?

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.