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What’s Up with the VA’s COVID-19 Vaccinations?

There’s been much discussion at our VBC events lately about the VA’s COVID-19 vaccination program. Officially, the VA is only vaccinating veterans who:

  •     Are over the age of 75
  •     Are enrolled in the VA Healthcare system
  •     Have made an appointment at a VA facility with the vaccine

This is all in line with the CDC’s guidelines on vaccination priorities. Here is the official policy of the VA on COVID-19 vaccinations

Early five-dose vials of the COVID-19 vaccine at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

Unofficially, however, veterans of all ages are getting vaccinated, some by appointment, some by simply walking in to a VA Medical Center. At least a dozen veterans under the age of 75, including one in his 40s, have told me they received vaccinations by walking into various VA facilities around Pittsburgh. 

“Walked into covid clinic 8AM,” emailed one dear friend, a Vietnam Marine veteran. “No appointment, no PCP referral. . . . Registered. Completed questionnaire. Received vaccine. Waited 15 minutes to be observed for reactions. Received covid information sheet and a form to record symptoms to report when return to receive second dose. Received a covid verification card. Received date time to return for second dose. Process was efficient and easy. . . . . I wish all veterans success. Go. Do not accept no to receive vaccine.” 

This veteran chalked up the mixed messages about VA vaccines to “typical government dysfunction.” Sure enough, the de-centralized distribution system means local jurisdictions are making their own decisions on the ground about whom to vaccinate. Just this morning, I heard that healthcare facilities in one Pennsylvania county are making teachers a priority for vaccinations.

But part of the problem seems to be related to the delicate lifespan of the vaccine itself. Both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines generally come in 10-dose vials. Once the vial is thawed, opened, and diluted (in Pfizer’s case), it must be used completely within six hours. The problem doesn’t appear to be lack of supply. Those who have the vaccine can have a lot of it. The problem, rather, is logistics: matching open vials to arms. Arms need to get jabbed in fairly rapid succession after the vials are uncorked. If a vial is open and waiting for customers, I’m pretty sure healthcare workers will administer the shot to whomever could use it. Otherwise, the dosage will get thrown out.

This is the card you’ll get when you receive your first vaccination. It includes your name, DOB, dates of your vaccinations, and the vaccine’s name and maker. EJ Hersom/Defense.gov

So, if you want to take a chance and walk-in, regardless of age, you might get a shot. But, the safer route is to follow the instructions and call for an appointment. You should be able to get one within a week. You can call your VA or look up a location here: https://www.va.gov/health-care/covid-19-vaccine/

Keep in mind only veterans can get the vaccine at the VA. No spouses or other relatives. And we still don’t know if people who are fully protected from COVID-19 from the vaccine can still spread the virus to others. A vaccinated person might get exposed to the virus, carry and even pass it around, but not get sick. Only time will tell if asymptomatic infection and transmission is possible after vaccination. Until we know that or until vaccinations start making it to all segments of our population, we’ll need to maintain social distance.