News & Politics

People From DC Are Driving to Rural Towns and Red States to Get Covid Vaccinations

In the capital, rollout is slow and demand high. Elsewhere, rules are looser and locals aren't always using the whole supply.

Photo via iStock.

More than three months into the vaccine rollout, about 10 percent of DC’s population is fully inoculated against Covid-19. According to national trackers, that puts the District behind almost the entire country (though city officials say the full picture is more complicated). Whatever the case, a lot of DC residents appear tired of waiting around. Unconvinced that their turn for the shot will arrive any time soon, they’re seeking the jab in other, often redder, parts of the country—places where looser rules prevail, and where ambient anti-vaccination thinking might make some locals hesitant to claim their shot.

Facebook groups such as District Vaccine Hunters are full of residents sharing information about where to track down open appointments beyond Washington. “Willing to drive to Danville, VA? Looks like they have more doses than they can use,” posts one District Vaccine Hunters member. Writes another: “My sister and I were successful today in securing our first shot in Spotsylvania County!” Another member joyfully reports: “I just made an appointment this Saturday for my husband at the Rite Aid in Marietta!” —as in Marietta, Ohio.

Private text chains around DC are similarly blowing up. “I heard about [New Bern, North Carolina] from my golf buddy,” says a lobbyist in his 30s, who, despite having high blood pressure had not been able to make a vaccine appointment in town. “He heard about it from someone—I don’t know who—but he got the tip that they were just open and it was basically like there didn’t seem to be any residency requirement.” His golf buddy texted the link to register, and the lobbyist says he was able to book an appointment almost immediately. (While most of North Carolina is still limiting vaccines to people 65 and up, Craven County, where New Bern is located, is one of a few places already inoculating all adults.)

Another Washingtonian, a 55-year-old business owner with no underlying conditions, also got a tip about North Carolina from a friend who’d heard about a facility in a town just over the Virginia border that “has more vaccines than they can give away.” The business owner called the facility, and says he divulged up front that he was a DC resident in fine health. The facility said that wasn’t a problem, and invited both him and his (also healthy) 18-year-old son to come on down. The business owner declined to name the facility, or even the town, because he worries they could become the target of “misguided hate.” But he says it was about a three-hour drive away. “We got it, got something to eat, and came back.”

According to guidance from North Carolina’s health department, residency in the state is not required to get vaccinated there. However, individual providers are allowed to turn non-residents away if they want. 

Ohio doesn’t have a residency requirement either. “At this time, if an individual is otherwise eligible under Ohio’s present criteria, providers should attempt to vaccinate that individual regardless of their county or state of residence,” says a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Health. Indeed, the state government reports that nearly 79,000 people from out-of-state have been vaccinated so far in Ohio. 

One healthy, 40-year-old Ward 4 resident—who, like all the other DC residents in this story, didn’t want her name used because she fears backlash for finding a shortcut to the vaccine—will soon be added to that tally. She has an appointment at a FEMA site in Cleveland later this week. “For me, being in a group that won’t be eligible in DC for a while, and being able to drive to a place where I am eligible or where there’s an abundance—I look at it as I’m freeing up vaccine in DC for someone who needs it and who can’t do that,” she explains. “I’ve driven that far for vacation, I might as well travel that far for my health.”

But for people with the right intel, an hours-long road trip might not be necessary. One DC woman, a self-described “vaccine hunter”, estimates that she’s helped about 30 people get appointments, most of them within a relatively close drive, largely by monitoring local Facebook groups for tips about surplus doses, and learning precisely when places like CVS and Safeway release new batches of appointments. Virginia and Maryland do not have residency requirements, and she stresses that she only assists people who are already eligible for the vaccine for health or work reasons. “Like, yesterday, I was corresponding with someone from the District. Her husband works in construction. …Her sister works doing housekeeping,” the vaccine hunter says. “At midnight, I got her sister an appointment at a CVS [in Northern Virginia]. I got her husband an appointment at a Safeway in Rockville.” 

The fact that all eligible people cannot “self-schedule” appointments at such places in the District—and must instead wait for the city to invite them to make an appointment—is of particular frustration to the vaccine hunter. “At this point,” she says, “we just need everyone vaccinated.” (CVS locations in the District recently began allowing some eligible people to self-schedule vaccines. The DC Department of Health did not respond to an email asking why people in the District can’t more broadly make their own appointments.)

Sometimes, though, it just works out. The 30-something lobbyist—the one with the vaccine appointment in New Bern, North Carolina—was all ready for his six-hour drive south. He’d lined up a rental car and scheduled vacation time at work. Then, the day before the trip, the coveted email from DC Health arrived: He’d finally scored an appointment in the District.  

*This story has been updated to reflect that some eligible people can self-schedule vaccine appointments at DC CVS locations.

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Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 as a staff writer, and became a senior editor in 2014. She oversees the magazine’s real estate and home design coverage, and writes long-form feature stories. She was a 2020 Livingston Award finalist for her two-part investigation into a possible wrongful conviction stemming from a murder in rural Virginia. Kashino lives in DC.