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Shot Chasers: Confessions of a Vaccine 'Cheater' 

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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
  • 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."

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