What to Do When A Coronavirus Vaccinator Doesn't Offer a Second Dose

After having an appointment for a second shot canceled, a Madison resident had to go on the hunt to complete her vaccination — the Wisconsin Department of Health Services notes this type of lapse is happening but shouldn't be, and encourages people to sign up via the state's registry.

By Marisa Wojcik

April 8, 2021 • South Central Region

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Gloved hands insert a syringe into an upper arm.

A vaccinator administers a coronavirus vaccine shot at the Alliant Energy Center clinic in Madison. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

Erin Paul-Schuetter was looking forward to getting her second dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.

The mother of a school-aged child had looked for where she could get vaccinated, and after a “hot tip,” secured an appointment at a Walmart pharmacy in Madison. Paul-Schuetter obtained her first shot on March 12, and while at the pharmacy, scheduled an appointment for her second shot, as is standard procedure with the vaccines that require two doses.

But when Paul-Schuetter showed up for her appointment three weeks later and handed the pharmacist her vaccination card, she was told they ran out of Pfizer doses.

“They were surprised that I showed up,” Paul-Schuetter said. “No one contacted me.”

The pharmacist apologized and told Paul-Schuetter she would try to find a second dose.

Julie Willems Van Dijke, deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, said the agency has received some reports about this lapse happening, though it shouldn’t be as pharmacies and other places delivering vaccines are sent enough doses for people to get their second shots.

“What we’re hearing is that the supply changes. Even within a day, the supply changes,” said Dr. Nasia Safdar, the director of infection control at the UW Hospital and Clinics.

The Walmart where Paul-Schuetter received her first dose said they now only have the Johnson & Johnson vaccine available, but wouldn’t comment further.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Pfizer vaccine requires a second dose 21 days later to be most effective.

“You should get your second shot as close to the recommended 3-week or 4-week interval as possible,” indicates the CDC guidance. “However, your second dose may be given up to 6 weeks (42 days) after the first dose, if necessary.”

“The thing that gives me a little bit of reassurance is that you do have this window of getting the second dose,” Safdar said. “The reason we try to stick closely to the three weeks is because that’s what was used in the clinical trials.”

“There is leniency in the number of days people can get that second shot,” Willems Van Dijk noted, but added, “I wouldn’t dawdle about it because we want you to have that second dose and have that protection.”

The CDC specifies that it is not necessary to restart the vaccination series if the second shot is given later than recommended. Additionally, the different types of vaccines are not interchangeable.

As of Thursday, the state health department reported a total of 3,286,584 vaccine doses have been administered, and 1,276,478 Wisconsin residents have gotten their full vaccine series. As of April 5, everyone age 16 and older in the state became eligible for any of the three approved vaccines.

Vials of Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine doses sit in a tray

A tray of Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine doses sits ready at the Alliant Energy Center mass vaccination clinic in Madison. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

Despite knowing about the additional window of time to get her second shot, Paul-Schuetter remained frustrated. She called SSM Health Dean Medical Group, where her husband was vaccinated, but was told they could not give her a second shot if they had not administered her first shot.

Safdar said that people should not be turned away for a second dose if they did not get their first dose from the same location. However, vaccinators might be reluctant because they want to make sure they have enough supplies based on the number of first doses they have given.

“So, people will unfortunately find themselves in a position where they may have to drive or repeatedly check for appointments and immediately take advantage of it when one is offered,” said Safdar.

A Chicago Tribune article published March 30 notes this problem happening at Walgreens pharmacies.

“It just feels a little bit like you get the rug pulled out from under you,” Paul-Schuetter said. “Now I have to go back on this wild goose chase for a vaccine.”

Paul-Schuetter feels she should have been contacted, and wondered what someone in this position would do if they don’t have a car.

The Walmart pharmacist assured Paul-Schuetter that more Pfizer doses would be arriving in less than two weeks, but it was little comfort as her daughter will soon be returning in-person to school.

“I was more emotional about it than I thought I would be afterwards,” Paul-Schuetter said.

In the end, Paul-Shuetter signed up for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services vaccine registry and subsequently received an email that she could get a Pfizer dose at the Alliant Energy Center mass vaccination clinic. However, the email said the clinic was offering first doses, and she’s nervous about showing up and getting turned away.

Once that second shot is in her arm, Paul-Shuetter said she’ll feel better.

Willems Van Dijk advises that anyone wanting to find a COVID-19 vaccine should call the state health department’s vaccine help line at 844-684-1064.

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