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Maine teachers tap 'waste list' at retail pharmacies to get COVID-19 vaccine

Retail pharmacies are supposed to fill all open appointments with teachers until the end of March, under President Joe Biden's directive.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — With Maine teachers now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, some are getting the COVID-19 vaccine through a backdoor policy called a "waste list" in order to expedite immunizations.

Here's how a waste list works:

When clinicians open a vial of vaccine, they have six hours before the vaccine expires: they must administer it or throw it away.

When a person cancels an appointment, a vial that has been opened may now be at risk of being wasted. A "waste list" is essentially a callback list that fills canceled appointments with eligible people who are available and in need of a vaccine. 

Monica Blatt is one of many teachers to take advantage. She heard from a friend that all she had to do was call a Walmart pharmacy directly, and asked to be placed on the waste list. She called several locations near her.

"Boom! 5:30 p.m. we make the call, 6:15 they call us, 7 o-clock we're getting a shot in the arm," Blatt said. "We were in absolute shock. I mean honest to goodness, we got home and went, 'we can't even believe that we are now vaccinated.'"

In a statement, Walmart said it is following state and federal protocols to avoid wasting doses.

But, state and federal protocols and priorities get murky with doses at-risk of going to waste.

Last week, President Joe Biden directed retail pharmacies participating in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program to give all remaining open slots to teachers through the end of March. 

That means retail pharmacies like Walgreens, Walmart, Sam's Club, and Hannaford should contact teachers to fill any canceled appointments.

At the state level, Maine has an "efficient and full-use policy" to prevent doses from going to waste. That policy directs vaccine providers to call people on waitlists based on age.

"I would say that we don't have a one-size-fits-all. While some pharmacies have the policy that you described, others don't. Each of the sites has their own policy to ensure no dose gets wasted," Maine DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in response to a question about waste lists during Tuesday's Maine CDC COVID-19 briefing.

Last week, Lambrew also announced dedicated vaccine sites for teachers age 60 and older for March 12, 13, and 14. Teachers can also sign up at other health care centers around the state without any preferential treatment.

RELATED: Maine announces dedicated vaccine clinics for teachers and school staff age 60 and older

Prior to Saturday, Blatt, and teachers like her, had been struggling to get vaccine appointments.

"A gazillion phone calls and all kinds of frustration and we honestly had resolved ourselves that we probably wouldn't get vaccinated until July," Blatt said. 

When asked if the state needs more organization around the concept of waste lists, Blatt said no.

"Sometimes you've got to be a little proactive. You're not breaking any rules," said Blatt.

Now, she is telling all her fellow teachers.

Blatt said she is eager to be proactive, especially since she is teaching in-person, five days a week, at 100 percent student capacity. 

"You feel like, okay, every day I got to work I'm not putting myself at risk of ending up in the ICU," said Blatt. "I feel a lot more protected now than I did before."