The fact that I have to get on an airplane for an international flight in six weeks’ time has me experiencing increasing anxiety over the continued molasses-like progress of the vaccine campaign in France. In the past few days, I have therefore taken measures into my own hands in an attempt to obtain a first dose to give me at least some immunity for before my transatlantic move from France back to the United States.
Who would have thought that getting a vaccine in France would prove just as challenging as procuring a large cardboard box (see Thinking outside of the box). The following encompasses a three-day succession of my attempts to get a dose.
Vaccine Recon Day I
This past Sunday, I spent seven hours at a large vaccination center in Lille, a large city not far from our home in a farming community in northern France. I arrived early with the hope of being able to take advantage of a recent campaign called #aucunedoseperdue (no dose lost) where people were being encouraged to go to vaccination centers to see if they could get a vaccine from doses left over from open bottles of the vaccine that had a limited shelf life and therefore would need to be used or thrown away. All told, I spent seven hours at the center and came home downtrodden and undosed. I had thought that I might be one a handful of people vying for a vaccine in this way, but by the end of the day there were several sheets of paper with a long list of people hoping for an extra dose, along with a line of at least 100 more people, leading from the entrance ot the center all the way to the parking lot.
Days two and three of my recon for extra vaccine doses were on par with day one, though thankfully without the seven hour, nail biting-inducing wait from my epic Sunday journey to Lille.
Read on to learn all about the experience of being a foreigner trying to get a vaccine in France at the “tender” age of 39.
Vaccine Recon Day II
After my big disappointment on Sunday at the enormous vaccination center in Lille, I rallied Monday morning and came up with a new plan. I would first go to a couple of pharmacies near our house to see if they might have extra doses or a waiting list to contact people at the end of the day.
The first place I asked, I was told that they used up all of their doses every day and there was no option to even take my name and number “au cas où” (just in case). Disheartened, I thought about turning around and walking home but took a deep breath and determinedly headed up the street to the second pharmacy.
The staff person at the second pharmacy was far friendlier than the first and explained that they had been giving out vaccines for a while but were not at the moment.
Will you be starting up again in the future? I asked.
We think we will be offering vaccines again starting in mid-May, she said. She added that it might be the Johnson and Johnson, which was one dose, and suggested that I contact them again at that time.
As I headed home, I felt like I had at least one potential viable option in the second pharmacy. Given the stigma against the Astra Zeneca vaccine in France for fear of blood clots, there may be similar fear surrounding the Johnson and Johnson, which could also work in my favor. I could also list a handful of people I knew in our area who were eligible for the vaccine and who were intentionally choosing not to get vaccinated, so maybe that meant more doses for other people.
That afternoon, I came up with another plan based on what I had learned from my Sunday vaccination center visit in Lille. Those lessons included the following:
- A person under 55 is not likely to get a dose by going to a vaccination center in a big city that gives Pfizer doses, especially not on a sunny day.
- A person might have better luck going toa center that gives out the Astra Zeneca vaccine.
- A rural area with either Pfizer or Astra Zeneca might be more likely to have extra doses and fewer people on the waiting list.
- A person might have better luck going to a center at the end of the day on a weekday than a weekend when people have another else to do because the entire country is still in a third lockdown so stores and restaurants continue to be closed.
Based the information I already had and the deductions I made from my experience in Lille, I decided that I would try a couple of vaccination centers in rural areas a little closer to our house. My hope was that a rural area might have extra doses since there seem to be so many anti-vaxxers in our area. Maybe there were also people skipping appointments for that reason as well. I also had the thought that going to a center at the end of the day on a workday might improve my chances because hopefully other people would be about as motivated as I was to drive to a vaccination center just before closing. That is to say, not very.
When I got into my car and plugged in the address for a center in Lestrem, my GPS said 25 kilometers and about 28 minutes. With my propensity to take wrong turns when the GPS route is not all that clear and with end of the workday traffic, it took closer to an hour. During that time, I followed winding farm roads, periodically pulling over to let large tractors pass. At one point, I got stuck in a long line of traffic. I couldn’t figure out how this was possible because it seemed like I was in the middle of nowhere. Then I saw a stop sign at the head of the line, where each car had the turn left against the flow of traffic.
With each setback, I watched the minutes tick ahead for my arrival time, worrying that the center might already be closed by the time I arrived. Google had said it was open until 6pm, and I was centimetering (the metric equivalent of “inching”) my way closer and closer to the hour. At this rate, I knew I wouldn’t have time to go to both places, so I just hoped against hope that I the vaccination gods in charge of extra doses might hear my prayers.
As I drove, I tried to keep my spirits up, looking for all of the positive aspects of the experience. It was a beautiful evening. I was driving past charming brick farmhouses and fields of flowers.
I tried coming up with more titles for writing about trying to get a vaccine:
Desperate for a dose part 2 (not very creative)
Itching for immunity (maybe not the best verb choice for a pandemic)
Vying for a vaccine (trite but usable)
I finally turned down a small road, at which point my GPS screen informed me that I had arrived at my destination. The problem was that I saw no obvious vaccination center. There was a large building that looked very closed to my right and a residential area on my left. The only other place was a little grocery store/mart, which did not look remotely like a place that was giving vaccines. I drove back to the store to at least ask if they knew of the center I was looking for. Everyone in line and the shop clerk cheerfully told me to go to the end of the road.
With 10 minutes to spare, I ran back to the car and drove to the end of the road where the first large building had been.
There the building still stood, still looking very closed, but I dutifully and determinedly drove around to the back, where I parked and walked up to the entrance.
Closed and with a decidedly unfriendly sign on the door, informing potential entrants that only those with appointments could enter the facility.
Don’t get me wrong. I really want a vaccine, and I don’t mind driving all over the place to try to get one, but I do mind not even having the opportunity to plea my case for a dose. Fuming, I got back in the car, put my home address into the GPS, and prepared for the return trip. It was then that I noticed that the GPS was set to pedestrian.
I texted my husband, suggesting that maybe this was why it had taken me so long to get there.
Are you sure it didn’t say 25 hours, my husband responded.
Ha! I responded. See you in 22 minutes.
Vaccine Recon Day III
Tuesday morning dawned grey and very windy.
I tried calling the center I had visited the night before that had been closed, and a recorded message informed me that I should call an 800 number, which turned out to be a general COVID information line. Thankfully, the recording was set on repeat so I could listen a few times and make sure I wrote the number down correctly. The woman who answered the phone was very nice and recommended that I continue to contact vaccination centers while also going to local pharmacies to say I will volunteer if there are doses “qui restent” (left over) that need to be used up. She also explained that this was in fact legal and that I had the right to an extra dose, regardless of my age or health status.
Bolstered by this positive response, I finished my coffee, put a harness and leash on my husky, and headed out into the gale.
I spent the next hour, walking to three pharmacies in our town to inquire into whether they had a waiting list for extra doses that needed to be used up. The staff person at the first pharmacy said that even if they had doses that needed to be used they were not legally allowed to contact me because I was under age 50. So apparently they would prefer to waste perfectly good vaccines, which made zero sense to me and was completely counter to what the person had told me over the phone for the Covid Information Line.
At the second pharmacy, they did have a waiting list but could not legally ad my name because they gave the Astra Zeneca vaccine and were not allowed to give this vaccine to women under age 50.
The woman at the third pharmacy put her hand on her hip and laughed at me when I was asked if they had extra doses.
De tout, she said. De tout. (Not at all. Not at all)
I went by a bakery, where I bought several pastries and desserts and headed home, completely worn out and frustrated by my recon fail.
Upon returning home, I tried to rally and call vaccination centers in the area that gave the Pfizer vaccine. The rural centers had a message to call the same 800 number, so I gave up on those. Another place turned out to be a large hospital and suggested that I contact the specific venue where they were giving vaccines to ask. I looked up the number, but every time I tried it was busy and I wondered if they had taken the phone offline because there were not enough staff to answer phone calls. After an hour of trying and getting a busy signal, the call finally went through. I listened to ringing for several minutes before finally hanging.
Another person said she was only allowed to make reservations for people coming in to get a vaccine and I should try going directly to the center. That place turned out to be a one hour and 40-minute drive, so I gave up on that plan.
I have also been checking to see if appointments have opened up on 15 or 16 June on multiple vaccination sites by periodically refreshing the pages throughout the day.
In this way, I found several slots available on the 16th, but by the time my friend with a French cell number texted me the code to register on the site, every single appointment for that day had been taken.
Color me thrilled.
The other places I called either told me over the phone or in the recording I reached that I needed to only contact vaccination centers in my department in France because it was not possible to even be put on a waiting list for areas beyond the immediate region where I lived.
Friends in the United States tell me I just need to advocate for myself or find someone to talk to about getting a vaccine. They do not at all understand the culture of France, however. This is definitively not the wild west nor is it the organized east. It is a place where everyone seems to offer different and often contradictory information. It is a place with strange rules. And from my humble perspective as a foreigner, the vaccine situation seems to be not at all functioning like a well-oiled machine. It is a mess, and if it were possible to get on a plane and head back to the states tomorrow to put this nightmare behind me, I would.
Until that time, my husband, who has been my own personal supportive coach/cheerleader, reminds me to keep perspective. After each vaccination center or pharmacy fail, he responds with positivity by text and recommendations how to respond to the situation and keep perspective:
Way to stick it out!
At least you are getting ot know the system.
You done really good!
Keep the faith. It will work.
Have patience and don’t let them get to you.
Just continue living your life…the vaccine will happen at some point.
This is a globally messed up situation that we are in. (aka, you are not alone in your despair and frustration over not being able to get vaccinated)
Pastries are good. Hang in there.
At least in my moments of despair, I am not alone and I am loved. That counts for a lot in my book. Here’s hoping the next recon mission will bear better fruit.