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Shot Chasers: Confessions of a Vaccine 'Cheater' 

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In late January, data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that Missouri was ranked dead last among all states in terms of vaccination rates, prompting residents to get creative to secure their shots. Those in the major metropolitan areas, especially, have begun traveling to rural communities that are flush with vaccines, while some of those same communities have opened up eligibility to ensure their shots don't go to waste. For this week's cover story, two RFT writers tried their hands at getting vaccinated and reported back. For the other story in this package, click here.

When I got the email confirming my appointment to receive the first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, I damn near threw my laptop across the room as if it were on fire.

I had just over an hour to get from my home in St. Louis County to the Belle-Clair Fairgrounds mass vaccination site in Belleville, Illinois, and I was feeling the pressure. In a half-panic, I frantically gathered up all the things I would need. Keys! Photo ID! Phone charger! Oh shit, it's freezing outside — jacket! It's a small miracle I remembered to put pants on in the mad scramble.

My hands were trembling with excitement as I prepared to leave, so much so that I had to have my fiancée enter the address to the site on my phone's GPS for me. When I got outside to my car I determined that there simply wasn't enough time to properly scrape all of the ice from my windshield, so I used my bare hands to claw away just enough to see what was in front of me, relying on the heater's defrost setting to do the rest. Within minutes, I was Illinois-bound, racing down I-70 while peering through a half-frosted windshield and frantically calling my family and friends in the hopes they would luck out in the same wholly unlikely way I had.

It was February 12, and I had been wrapping up work near the tail end of an otherwise uneventful Friday when I noticed something intriguing in the back-end of the RFT's blogging platform: One of our new interns this semester, Jack Killeen, was working on a story with the temporary headline "Getting vaccinated (title work in progress)."

"What's all this, then?" I wondered. Jack, I know, is a younger fella, much younger than I. So how was he getting a vaccine? Being that I am unashamedly nosey (what kind of reporter would I be if I weren't?) I clicked on the half-written post and started reading.

Jack's prose spoke of vaccine chasers whose attempts to get needles into their arms were often centered around finding vials that were set to expire or otherwise go to waste. He wrote about an event in Belleville that he'd heard had opened to the public at large after being unable to find enough willing recipients. "The Belleville Fairgrounds are doing a drive thru covid vaccine event tomorrow-this weekend and need people to sign up so the vaccines don't go to waste," he'd been told in a text message by a family member, who shared a link and a registration code — both of which I was now staring at in the post (See the finished story).

It was as though I'd stumbled upon a secret trove of forbidden knowledge. In disbelief, I copied and pasted the URL into my browser's search bar and pressed enter. When prompted, I typed in the registration code and was shocked when it worked, allowing me access to a site that asked for my personal information.

I answered each question honestly — I live in Missouri, I'm in my 30s, I'm not a health-care worker, I'm fat but not quite fat enough for it to be dubbed a comorbidity, etc. — and clicked to schedule an appointment for the following afternoon. The computer told me the slot I'd attempted to sign up for was now taken, and in fact, every Saturday slot was gone. I tried the same for Sunday and saw the same outcome — though these appointments were available when I initially selected them, by the time I submitted the form I was told they were filled. It seemed to me that there must be a lot of people vying for spots at the moment for the situation to be this fluid.

I shrugged and tried for a Friday slot, figuring all those, for sure, must be filled up. But to my shock, one went through. The site directed me to check my email for a QR code to bring to the fairgrounds, and when I saw that I'd received one my eyes popped out of my head as though I were a Looney Tunes character noticing a fellow Looney Tunes character's sexy drag outfit. I promptly sent the scheduler link and verification code to my mom, and then called her immediately and told her to check her email. I sent the link to several friends in a group text as well, hoping as many of the people I care about as possible would be able to get in.

One friend I spoke with as I raced to the site said he'd been tipped off to this situation earlier in the day, but had no luck when he'd tried to secure an appointment. The only reason I'd gotten one, we agreed, is that someone must have canceled theirs. I couldn't imagine why anyone would do that, but I was grateful.

"Keep trying," I told my mom urgently over the phone. "Even if it looks like all the slots are full, somebody might cancel."

As we approach the one-year mark of the coronavirus pandemic running and ruining the vast majority of our lives, many have begun to hit a wall. COVID fatigue is real, and as the health crisis has dragged on endlessly, some are giving up and throwing caution to the wind, unable or unwilling to keep up with ever-shifting safety guidelines, while others are spiraling further and further into the depths of insanity as the isolation and lack of stimulation chew through their brain cells likes worms through soil.

I'm in the latter camp. That might be because, in my case, quarantine life essentially started about three months earlier than it did for most.

On December 4, 2019, I was riding a moped home from a trip to the store when a driver traveling the opposite direction suddenly turned in front of me, lining me up right between his headlights and propelling me through the air in what became my first (and hopefully last) 40 mph front flip. After an ambulance ride to the ER, emergency surgery to repair my newly shattered hip and a five-day stay in the hospital, I was sent home to recuperate. I spent the beginning of 2020 using a wheelchair.

That period of time is a haze of painkillers and prone positions in front of the television, broken up only by biweekly physical therapy appointments. By early March, and still with considerable difficulty, I finally got to the point where I could get around with a cane, and I was excited to finally trek out into the world again.

We're all painfully aware of the global events of March 2020 that happened next. And since my fiancée is a nurse at a local hospital — with the accompanying potential to bring any manner of illness home from work — I've been studiously and strictly following stay-at-home guidelines ever since.

And so, in a sense, I can serve as something of a glimpse into the near future, to the level of desperate, intractable boredom that awaits at the fifteen-month mark of quarantine life. Insanity at these levels can even make a man believe the unbelievable, to dare to dream that it'd be possible to get a vaccine months ahead of schedule through sheer luck.

As I was waved into a line of cars by a National Guardsman at the Belle-Clair Fairgrounds & Expo Center, I felt that same sense of hope I'd felt when I'd healed up from my accident. Finally, after all this time, I'd be able to start actually living my life again, rather than sitting in limbo. Finally, I'd be able to drop my complicated COVID safety rituals that'd grown so tiresome over the last twelve months. Finally, things could go back to normal again!

Cars parked at the Belle-Clair Fairgrounds. - JACK KILLEEN
  • JACK KILLEEN
  • Cars parked at the Belle-Clair Fairgrounds.

I called my mom to see if she'd had any luck securing an appointment and was delighted to hear she had — she was scheduled for the following morning. My dad, meanwhile, had nabbed a Friday slot and was driving to the site now. My sister hadn't been able to get one yet, but she was still trying.

I was ecstatic, but a bit confused. How'd my mom get a Saturday slot? I'd tried for one of those, and they were all taken. And how had my dad gotten an appointment for today? Are people really canceling their appointments in such great numbers? The long line of cars snaking all through this parking lot would seem to indicate that there was plenty of demand for the shot. So what gives?

I watched as members of the National Guard approached the six or so cars in front of me, armed with scanners and clipboards. Then, with some confusion, I watched as they sent all six of those cars along in a batch, with none of them stopping in the area wherein the shots would presumably be administered.

At last, it was my turn. I pulled to the front, where a guardsman asked for my QR code and ID. After scanning the former, he looked at the latter.

"OK, two problems," he said. "First, you don't live in Illinois. Second, you're not 65."

I told him that I'd heard they had more shots than they had appointments, and that supposedly they'd opened up eligibility to the general public.

"They changed the rules at noon," he told me. "I just got here."

I asked if there was anything I could do here, and he said no. So I took my ID back, told the man "thank you" and then pulled my car forward until I was no longer in anyone's way, whereupon I rolled my window back up, gripped my steering wheel with both hands and screamed at the top of my lungs in frustration.

After collecting myself, I called my dad. "Turn around," I told him. He explained to me that my mom and sister had just jumped into my mom's car and were on their way to the site now too — my sister had gotten a late-Friday appointment just like he and I had.

That's when it dawned on me: The canceled visits were the people who were being turned away for not qualifying — that's why there were so many, and the situation felt so fluid. The slot my sister had secured was probably originally held by the occupant of one of the six cars that had been in front of me. The system that St. Clair County had used for scheduling these appointments bafflingly didn't exclude people who were not qualified, even when those people were 100 percent forthright about their Missouri citizenship and younger age. So with every car that was turned away a new appointment opened up, which then got gobbled up by someone else who probably wasn't qualified but who was repeatedly hitting refresh on the scheduler link. Essentially, it was a self-feeding system guaranteeing that the event would be run in the least efficient manner humanly possible, as the poor National Guard members were forced to spend the majority of their time sending people away instead of helping to administer shots.

"Yeah, turn around," I told my dad. "Call Mom and tell her to do the same."

As the visions of hugging my family members for the first time in a year evaporated before my eyes, I dejectedly pointed my car in the direction of home, vowing to never get my hopes up again.

The following morning, I was irate to wake to news that I'd been labeled a cheater.

As reported by Kavahn Mansouri (a former RFT intern) for the Belleville News-Democrat, St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern said that a whopping 80 percent of Friday's scheduled appointments had been nabbed by people who were not eligible. All that talk of extra shots and open eligibility had been nothing more than a myth. The explanation the guardsman had given me about the rules changing at noon and his having just arrived was untrue and, most likely, simply the best way they had figured out to keep the line moving and get the ineligible people to leave with as little resistance as possible. That's understandable, and more power to them.

Vaccine chasers from as far as California had shown up to the event, according to Kern, as well as many from Missouri and some from Michigan. They were all turned away.

"Someone figured out how to get through the system and make it hard for people who legitimately need the vaccine, who live here, to sign up," Kern said. "... Someone or a group of people really hurt the system by trying to cheat and get around the rules as they exist."

Herb Simmons, the county emergency management agency director, referred to the problem as a "breach" in the appointment system. Officials believe the link — the same link I'd used — was shared and reshared on social media and through text messages to the point of virality, resulting in that Friday's clusterfuck. Simmons said entire families were showing up for vaccinations, and even a twelve-year-old had arrived with an appointment.

"Anytime someone who hasn't followed the rule has to be turned away, that slows the process down," Simmons said. "Please be from St. Clair County, and we will get you taken care of as quickly as possible."

The fact that I and those like me were being scapegoated as cheaters who refused to follow the rules by the people in charge of this horribly mismanaged system left me incensed. How difficult would it be to simply code the appointment scheduler to exclude people who should be excluded? How much time and effort would have been saved if this had just been done right in the first place? Sure, maybe it was an insane fantasy to think that a mass vaccination event would see so little interest from people in proper tiers that it would open up to the public regardless of eligibility, but if I filled out all of my information honestly, what the hell did I do wrong?

I decided to see what I could learn about these people. A quick Google search on Simmons' name pulled up a trove of October reports in which Simmons can be seen in multiple videos unmasked and ignoring social distancing guidelines in his capacity as commissioner of the Southern Illinois Championship Wrestling organization, which he recently moved to Tennessee in order to skirt — some might even say "cheat" — COVID-19 guidelines. This, even as he repeatedly stressed the importance of the safety measures to St. Clair County residents.

Asked by Fox 2 reporter Chris Hayes why it's OK for him to ignore those rules in Tennessee but enforce them in Illinois, he dropped this gem: "I have no idea. I guess because their mitigation is different. Each state has their own guidelines that they're going by. Each county down there is probably — is different — than what it is here."

Kern, meanwhile, opted to stand by his man. Despite the fact that Simmons can plainly be seen flouting his own guidance in multiple videos, Kern, who said he didn't watch any of them, told KSDK that Simmons had actually not done that.

"Mr. Simmons wears a mask and practices social distancing," Kern said. "He does everything he's supposed to do."

St. Clair County residents were incensed at the videos. Freeburg Village Administrator Tony Funderburg offered withering criticism when contacted by KSDK.

"When I first saw it, I'm like, 'There's no way this guy can do this job, there's just no way,'" Funderburg said. "He's the guy that's telling us how to live our lives and what to do on a daily basis, and he is not following that. It's hard for me to have any respect for him at this point."

Meanwhile, as I was watching videos of a maskless Simmons hanging out with wrestlers, my colleague Killeen was back on the scene in St. Clair County, where he came across Simmons while reporting. When Killeen asked about the debacle, Simmons responded with a bunch of bullshit.

"It was people that had got a link sent to them by a friend or family member that clearly stated that if you didn't receive this from the health department you shouldn't sign up, and they did," he said falsely — there was no such message on the page.

Killeen asked how so many people were able to sign up despite being ineligible, to which Simmons replied, "Because they probably went in there and changed, they put different, false dates and that in there," which is not true of my case, Killeen's, my family's or many others at the site who filled out the questionnaire honestly.

"At the top of the QR code it says that you have to be a frontline health-care worker or 75 or older," a man near Simmons said, to Simmons' approval. This is also not the case at all whatsoever.

Asked the most burning question, the one that would have avoided this entire stupid mess — why the system didn't automatically exclude people who were not eligible — Simmons opted to pass the buck.

"It's the software that they use," he said. "We don't have any control of that."

Nearly two weeks later, as I was sitting down and working on this story, I got a message from a friend: There was a mass vaccination event happening in Leopold, Missouri, that had not seen many people signing up for appointments, I was told. Due to the dearth of willing recipients, the event was to be opened to the public at large regardless of eligibility. According to KFVS reporter Alayna Chapie, the site was stocked with 1,950 shots, but Leopold, whose population is a scant 65 people, apparently didn't need that many.

I was skeptical. This scenario sounded eerily familiar, and my St. Clair County experience had already seared the life lesson to never get my hopes up onto my very being. But though my brain did protest, I soon found my body behind the wheel of my car, headed two and a half hours south with my fingers crossed. At the very least I could see some cows, I figured.

Spotty cell service and a lack of confirmation from the workers manning the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services COVID-19 hotline prevented me from reaching out to friends and family as I had done before. This mass vax event was more than double the distance I'd driven for my last failed attempt, and even if I could get cell service long enough to relay a message, I wouldn't want to send anyone on what was, more likely than not, another utterly doomed wild goose chase.

Several refrains of "Moo, cows, eat up some hay" (to the tune of the Ludacris song) later I arrived at a Knights of Columbus hall in the tiny town. Its parking lot was overflowing with cars, and a National Guardsman again directed me to the line.

The Knights of Columbus hall in Leopold. - GOOGLE STREET VIEW
  • GOOGLE STREET VIEW
  • The Knights of Columbus hall in Leopold.

When I was asked for my ID, I handed it over, fully prepared to be turned away at this point just as I had before.

"You're from St. Louis?" the guardsman who took it said.

"County, yeah," I replied.

"Hey, I'm from Florissant," he said as he handed my license back to me, along with a vaccine card.

It seemed as though the rumors that brought me here were true, but I wanted to be sure, so I asked the guardsman why, exactly, the event had been opened to the public.

"We only had about 200 people sign up," he told me. "So they went ahead and blasted it out to the media that anyone could come."

Minutes later, a woman in scrubs came to my door with a syringe in hand, filled with that magical life-restoring fluid, and stuck me right in the arm, to my absolute shock and infinite gratitude.

The following day — the time of this writing — I could find zero reports of elected or appointed Missouri officials accusing me of cheating.

Read the second story in our "Shot Chasers" package.

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