States have worked individually to temporarily license more people to give vaccines, but on Thursday the US Department of Health and Human Services amended the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act. The change broadens the pool of eligible vaccinators across the US. As a result, retired doctors and nurses whose licenses expired in the last five years are now eligible to administer vaccines, and anyone certified to administer vaccines in one state can now also give them anywhere in the US.
The administration purchased 200 million additional vaccine doses this week and promised increased distribution to states. Volunteers will play a significant role in getting those doses administered. But for many, whether they can get vaccinated themselves depends on the jurisdiction they are in and how many doses happen to be available on any given day.
Like many local health departments these days, St. Joseph County in South Bend, Indiana is seeking volunteers.
“We’re a local health department of 50 staff that cover five different key areas of public health, so when we look at our immunization team, we’re talking about less than a dozen people,” said Robin Vida, the health department’s volunteer coordinator.
The county put out a call for volunteers to help with the vaccination effort, and Vida said they soon had more than 1,500 responses.
One of those responses came from Dr. Robert Riley, a retired family physician.
“As somebody who’s recently retired, I’ve spent an awful lot of time at home, so the opportunity to first of all get out and have some human contact was attractive, as well as finally feeling like I could do something,” said Riley. “This virus has been rampaging all over the world and hitting close to home as well as far away, and the opportunity to step in and actually make a difference was very appealing.”
During his first volunteer shift, Riley inquired about whether he could receive a vaccine, and was given a shot of the Moderna vaccine that day. He’s due for his second shot in a couple of weeks.
Riley is 63, and was not providing direct patient care before volunteering, so he would not have otherwise received a vaccine. He said getting vaccinated a little early was just a nice bonus.
Vida said her team was planning to vaccinate all volunteers, but after learning about their modest vaccine allotment, they decided they could only commit to vaccinating those who volunteer 60 hours over the course of three months.
Many health systems and providers have had to come up with their own criteria for whether and when volunteers can get vaccinated.
Dr. Sarah Nafziger, professor of emergency medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), said that all volunteers who work regularly in patient-facing roles at UAB’s vaccination sites are offered the vaccine.
Many of UAB’s volunteers are students, including those who help with paperwork, managing traffic flow and setting up the sites.
“Just because you’re in an administrative role doesn’t mean you’re not patient-facing,” she said. “It’s really about who interacts with the patients.”
Some providers have even advertised the vaccine as an incentive in their efforts to recruit volunteers, but others are reluctant to make promises while there is so much uncertainty around the supply of doses.
Vaccine not always a guarantee for volunteers
LaKieva Williams helps run Georgia Responds, the state’s Covid-19 volunteer response effort. Volunteers sign up online and outline their skills — from medical to administrative — and are matched with organizations or health systems within the state that need their help.
Since March, Williams says more than 7,000 Georgians have signed up. Some of those people, like part-time health care workers, already qualify to receive a vaccine. Others, like the administrative assistants, computer analysts and engineers who have volunteered their skills, may have to wait a while.
The Georgia Department of Health said that as a statewide agency, it cannot guarantee all volunteers priority access to vaccines.
“While I think ideally, you want all of your volunteers to be vaccinated we still have to adhere to the phases in the rollout,” Williams said. “The intent is there, but it’s a matter of supply.”
If vaccine allotment increases, Vida said St. Joseph County hopes to be able to stand up additional satellite vaccination clinics in communities that have a harder time accessing the main clinic.
“In all honesty, if we had unlimited amount of vaccine, we would probably triple the amount of people we would see in a day,” she said. “If we can build a really solid group of healthcare and community members, we’ll be able to host those satellite clinics without any issues.”
Riley said there’s no shortage of community members willing to help. He’s even helping to train a few.
“I worked yesterday with two retired physicians that I’ve known for decades,” he said. “We have flexibility, and we have the ability to do something that not everybody can do.”
He said that sometimes volunteers are offered remaining doses at the end of the day.
“You can’t save those extra doses until tomorrow, you’ve got to try and get them into people, and they’re trying to use that as the funnel for getting the volunteers caught up,” said Riley.
He said the clinic is vaccinating about a few hundred people a day, but he believes they have the space and manpower to do far more.
“The people that have the qualifications to help have been willing to do so,” said Riley. “We just need more vaccine.”
CNN Health’s Jen Christensen contributed to this report.