Getting the shot in the City of Light
by Linda Mak
At the end of March, just before the Easter long weekend, France went into its third lockdown. The schools quickly switched to online learning, and the spring break timing was revised, nationwide. In addition to a 10km travel limit, France had a 7pm curfew.If anyone had spring break plans to travel, they were most likely cancelled, unless you had a summer home or grandma’s house to escape to. The night before the lockdown, Paris streets were full of people haphazardly packing their double-parked cars, verbally abusing their kids in public, in their rush to escape. It was a much more panicked exodus compared to the annual pre-August holiday exodus. With the Covid restrictions, the idea of being trapped in a locked-down city, made the rush to flee Paris feel like the start of an Armageddon movie.
At that time, the only people aged 70 and up, or with severe health problems, were eligible for a covid vaccine. From mid-June, everyone 18 and over would be eligible to get a vaccine. So, the message being sent to young and healthy people was, ‘be patient and wait’.
But this is France, and the bureaucracy always has loopholes. A new distraction sprung up in Paris over the spring break – how to hunt down the vaccine. I first heard about it from a friend who suggested we start hanging around outside vaccine centers, because “since no one will be in Paris after Easter, there might be spare shots”. I thought she was crazy, but I was keen.
The French media calls people like us les glaneurs, the gleaners. Like gleaners for grain in an already harvested field. We glaneurs spent the early spring days loitering outside vaccination centers hoping for spares. And it worked. A Facebook friend posted how she hung around several suburban vaccination centers around closing time, until she finally got the vaccine. “I got lucky”, she said. I say she persisted.
I did not persist. I only tried to glean once. My friend and I went to a vaccination center at the 15tharrondissement’s town-hall. We stood outside with a few other people who all looked way older than us. We then knew that if there were spares, they would go to these older gleaners, not us, but we were curious to see what happened. I expected to see a line of eager people out the door, but the center looked barely open. After 20 minutes of milling around, a civil servant came out. She said they didn’t have any spares, only enough for their appointments. And even if they did have spares, there was a waiting list they would call on before offering it up to us glaneurs.
The Waiting List
In March, two websites appeared to help facilitate vaccine distribution and make the search for spare vaccines easier. One, called vitemadose.covidtracker.fr, tells people where they can get vaccinated, if eligible. The other, a start-up called covidliste.com, tells people if there are spare vaccines at a facility, regardless of eligibility. I registered for the waitlist the night I found out about the site. They haven’t contacted me yet. Perhaps the persistent glaneuse has more of a chance.
Supply and Demand
After living in France for over five years, I have learned that the French have a funny way of managing supply and demand. There never seems to be enough supply for the things in demand (like hand gel or masks at the beginning of the pandemic). In grocery stores when they run out of stock, there’s no nearby warehouse where they can get more, and rarely do clothing salespeople say, “let me just check in the back room for that size”. When things run out, they’re just out. Unlike in America, where you can get what you want, when you want it, 24/7, adjusting to this French reality can be difficult. It feels the same with the vaccine roll-out. Talking to my friends in the States, where nearly everyone I know has been vaccinated and are planning their summer travel, impatience among the willing and eager is growing. It’s a classic case of ‘First World FOMO’.
France also has a problem of low demand. France is one of the most vaccine-wary countries in the world. Just the other day, at my son’s doctor, the doctor said he would not get the vaccine, nor would he recommend it to his grown children or his healthy young patients. He went on to say that he only recommends it for his most fragile elderly patients, and his 85-year-old mother. I was dumbfounded. Here I sat across from a medical professional rendered completely speechless by his views. I know vaccine hesitancy isn’t unique to France, it is common around the world. What astonished me was this was coming out of the mouth of a doctor. I’ve since learnt that many medical professionals in France are wary. A survey of 1000 French doctors found that a quarter of them were ‘uncertain about or hostile to Covid-19 vaccines’.
I am not uncertain, and I hope both supply and demand in France revs up, so we can stop this virus and return to some semblance of normality. So, as my ‘First World FOMO’ grew from seeing vaccinated friends in the U.S. starting to do ‘normal’ things again, I wanted to get the vaccine as soon as possible.
Right Place Right Time
One day at the beginning of April, a pharmacy in Passy started offering the AstraZeneca vaccine to anyone passing by on the street. This was when controversy was swirling around in the media about the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines causing rare blood clots. A passer-by texted a friend, who texted my friend, who then texted her husband who happened to be in that neighbourhood. He ran to the pharmacy and got a shot right before they closed. This isn’t the kind of chance you can just seek out. It’s about being in the right place at the right time, and also having a network of gleaners to let you know.
It’s Who You Know
I have a friend who got the vaccine because she has a much older boyfriend who is a doctor, so he gave it to her. That’s knowing the right people.
My right person is the friend who got me into this hunt in the first place. She’s what Malcolm Gladwell calls a ‘Connector’. She is resourceful and has a wide network of friends. Last week she texted me with a Doctolib appointment booking link. She’d got it from a friend, who knew that a particular suburban vaccination center needed to clear out Pfizer vaccines, to make room for more shipments. They were making appointments for anyone 40 and over, regardless of medical conditions. BINGO! We booked our appointments immediately, then wondered if it was a scam. Are these vaccines that fell off the Pfizer freezer truck?
Fake News or Not?
I checked on the town’s municipal Facebook page which stated that the vaccine center’s 40+ appointment slots were Fausses Informations aka Fake News. But then there were several comments from healthy 40 somethings saying it was true, one center had opened up slots to get rid of surplus.
Not being certain of the truth, I didn’t know if I should take the hour and a half train ride for an injection, only to be rejected. I also felt guilty for ‘jumping the queue’ for a vaccine that should be given to a fragile person. But, upon calling the center to fact check the information and asking if it was ok to come if we were healthy and in our 40’s, they said ‘Pas de problem’. No problem? OK, let’s do this.
The Day I Got My Shot
I took the Metro and the RER A to the western suburban town of Saint-Maur-Des-Fosses. I arrived on time for my appointment inside an old gymnasium. There were 10 white tents set up and a few registration desks. My visit was brief. I was checked in at the door by a funny guy, welcomed by a lady squirting out hand gel, talked to a grumpy guy who couldn’t believe I didn’t have a Carte Vitale, and then I was told to wait. After a couple minutes I was directed to Tent #3. Inside was a desk, computer, printer, vaccines in a tray ready to go, and a young man wearing a blue surgical smock. He seemed like an angel behind his mask and spoke French slowly and clearly. He asked me my phone number, address, if I was pregnant and if I was left or right-handed. I took off my jacket, exposed my right shoulder. He warned me of the ‘piqûre’. I felt the needle touch my skin, and never before had pain felt that good. I breathed and thought, at last, F*** You Covid.
Is that Light I see at the End of the Tunnel?
At the time of publishing this post, people over 50 are eligible to get the vaccine and, just announced this week, anyone over 18 can get the vaccine if they take an open appointment for the next day. From mid-June those aged 18 and up will be able to get the vaccine at any time. The largest Parisian vaccinodrome at Porte de Versailles is now open and and aims to inject 20,000 people per week. This is a welcome addition to Stade de France vaccinodrome that has been in operation since early April. The verdict is out as to which center has the hottest Pompiers ;).