Grocery stores’ decision to skirt the established order of distribution is a last-ditch effort to save a precious resource at risk of going to waste. Both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines must be stored in extreme cold and administered soon after thawing, and both spoil quickly and cannot be refrozen. Already, reports have emerged across the U.S. of doses going bad. The federal government has delivered more than 27 million doses to distributors so far, but only 9 million people have received at least one. In D.C., the health department’s mandate is to not let any vaccine perish. At least several grocery-store pharmacies are doing what they can to get shots into as many arms as possible—but the lines and crowds that have ensued offer a particularly vivid illustration of how even good intentions can lead to trouble in the absence of a fully fleshed-out national vaccination plan.

This week, I visited four of D.C.’s five Giant pharmacies to see the lines for myself. In Brentwood, people started queuing not long before noon. On H Street, the line started at 4 o’clock one morning, in the freezing cold, two hours before the store unlocked its doors; the next day, it snaked out the door by early afternoon. Shaw was by far the most chaotic. The whole scene had serious Lord of the Flies energy—the extreme fatigue, the undercurrents of cutthroat competition, the physical danger of infection looming over it all. The group had even begun to hash out the basics of self-governance. “Yesterday was a little bit of a disaster,” a young woman who’d been waiting for nine and a half hours on Sunday told me. “So that’s why we started doing the informal deli-number system—to try to create some order.” (I explained to the man in the orange jacket that I was not there to get vaccinated and returned my paper scrap, which he promptly handed to another newcomer.)