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'It shouldn't be wasted:' What happens to leftover COVID-19 vaccines in Tampa Bay?

Florida Health officials say it's rare that doses of COVID-19 vaccines are left over, but it can happen.

TAMPA, Fla. — Getting a COVID-19 vaccine is so critical, many are trying to get the shot even if they don't fit the state's guidelines.

The easiest way for that to happen has been through leftover doses that would otherwise go unused. Many people have been hunting for those shots at vaccine sites or pharmacies across Tampa Bay.

"As it stands as of today, my entire family is vaccinated," 25-year-old Rachel Rutkowski said. 

She's the last in her family to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Her parents, both nurses, got doses right away. Her sister is a teacher and brother is immunocompromised. 

Rachel knew she didn't fit Florida's vaccine guidelines, but decided to take a chance.

"I had seen, you know, various articles and rumors from friends that there are ways of getting vaccines through waste avoidance, or, you know, looking for extras so to speak," Rutkowski said.

Florida Health officials say it's rare doses of COVID-19 vaccines are left over, but it can happen.

Rachel set out to try and get a shot on her day off last Thursday. 

"I thought, 'What's the worst that could happen?' I could sit in my car for two hours and not get the COVID vaccine. That's the worst case, but best case scenario, I could actually have the opportunity to get the shot. For me, that was a risk that had very little risk, but a lot of reward. " Rutkowski said.

Her risk paid off. She got her first dose of Pfizer after the FEMA supported site at Larry Sands Sports Complex closed.

"I didn't meet the requirements, but I asked very politely, if they would mind if I just waited to decide to see if they had any leftovers. The nurse didn't necessarily encourage that. She kind of was like, 'We're not really sure if we're gonna have any, you could try.' Right after 6 [o'clock] was when I actually did get the vaccine," Rutkowski said.

The 25-year-old says she wasn't the only one waiting in line for a leftover vaccine.

Neither FEMA nor the state could answer questions about leftover vaccines. But data from the weekend shows 3,000 doses between the three FEMA sites in Tampa went unused. 

"If it's going to be thrown out or not used, it's better to just use it on whoever's available," Rutkowski said.

While thousands haven't been able to get an appointment or shot, FEMA says their sites still have availability. Pharmacies in the area do too, here are the protocols they have in place for waste avoidance:

CVS Pharmacy:

"In the event of unused doses in our pharmacies, our pharmacy teams will evaluate how to most efficiently vaccinate eligible individuals with remaining doses. This includes outreaching to eligible patients in their communities, as our pharmacies maintain patient profiles with information that can help identify who is eligible to be vaccinated."

Publix:

"Publix’s goal is to administer 100 percent of the vaccines. We have a process in place to immunize our associates if there are any remaining doses at the end of the night."

Walgreens:

"Walgreens is committed to ensuring every dose of COVID-19 vaccine is used. At this time, demand for vaccines outweighs supply, so excess doses are rare. If there are available doses at the end of the day, our pharmacists are embedded in their communities and proactively reach out to eligible customers to offer the vaccine."

Walmart:

"Eligibility and Waste Avoidance Protocols have been developed in collaboration with state health departments with the shared goal of never letting a dose go to waste. Each vial contains multiple doses, and those doses are administered in accordance with CDC and FDA guidelines. In the event additional doses from an opened vial are available and there are no scheduled appointments, we turn to individuals, including our associates, who fall within that priority to administer the remaining doses. If no one is available in that priority, where states allow, we move to the next priority."

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