Questions arise about public disclosure of wasted vaccines
The health department director in Tennessee’s most populous county said Wednesday that she found out about wasted coronavirus vaccines days before she publicly disclosed any doses had expired.
Dr. Alisa Haushalter, director of the Shelby County Health Department in Memphis, said during a news conference that wasted vaccine doses were discovered during preparations for winter storms that struck Memphis starting Feb. 11. Haushalter said she found out about expired vaccine doses on Feb. 13.
Sub-freezing temperatures and accumulations of snow and ice on roads led to the closure of vaccination sites during the following week as severe winter storms continued, causing existing inventory to build as the state kept delivering vaccines to the county, Haushalter said.
Haushalter did not publicly disclose that any vaccine doses had been wasted until Feb. 19. That day, she said about 1,315 vaccine doses had expired and were thrown out amid the bad weather. But she made no mention of doses that expired before the winter storm struck.
In all, more than 2,400 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in Shelby County went to waste over the past month while local officials sat on tens of thousands of shots that state officials thought had already gone into arms, the state’s health commissioner announced Tuesday.
The finding came after the Tennessee Department of Health launched an investigation over the weekend into Haushalter’s initial report that the winter storms caused the 1,315 doses to be tossed.
Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey revealed Tuesday that the problems were far more widespread. She said issues dating back to Feb. 3 ranged from multiple incidents of spoiled doses, an excessive vaccine inventory, insufficient record-keeping and a lack of a formal process for managing soon-to-expire vaccines.
State investigators came to Memphis to look into the wasted vaccines, and Gov. Bill Lee told reporters Wednesday that officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are expected to be on the ground soon to launch their own investigation.
Piercey said the 2,400 wasted doses occurred over seven incidents. Roughly two-thirds of that amount occurred before last week’s storms, which caused several states to face delays in giving out vaccinations.
Piercey also said she was unsure how the county built up nearly 30,000 excessive vaccine doses in their inventory. Shelby County’s health department plans to use tens of thousands of viable surplus doses this week.
In a statement issued late Wednesday, Piercey said she had learned that some vaccines were withheld over the course of several weeks, which she called a “significant violation.”
“Stockpiling for a later phase is not authorized, and this action unnecessarily prohibited high-risk elderly individuals from receiving their fair share of this limited and life-saving resource,” she said.
Problems with vaccine distribution had already arisen in Shelby County before disclosure of the wasted doses. On at least one instance, people with appointments were turned away from vaccination sites after delays forced them to wait for hours for their shot. Those who missed their appointments were allowed to reschedule. Complaints about appointment availability also have emerged.
Haushalter said she called a state health official to discuss the wasted vaccines on Feb. 13, but she was unable to speak with anyone and left a message. Haushalter said she did not hear back from the state until Feb. 19, when the state began its investigation after her public statements about the wasted vaccines.
Dr. Bruce Randolph, the Shelby County Health Department’s chief health officer, said officials “regret deeply” that vaccines were wasted. Haushalter did not rule out resigning.
“I have made it my responsibility, and it is my responsibility, to be accountable for what has occurred,” she said during Wednesday’s news conference.
As a result of the wasted vaccines, Shelby County’s local health department will no longer be allowed to allocate the vaccine — a rare move by the state that has stressed the importance of local involvement in the vaccine rollout.
Instead, Memphis city officials, hospitals, clinics and other pharmacies throughout the county will handle the distribution. Meanwhile, the physical management of the vaccine will now be handled by hospital partners.
Gov. Lee demurred when asked when or if Shelby County would get authority to oversee the vaccine distribution. Instead, the Republican stressed that the state’s goal currently is to give out shots as fast as possible.
“What happens in the future will change with regards to the amount of vaccines we have and what the distribution process looks like moving forward,” Lee said. “Our job right now is to get the vaccine in the arms of Shelby County residents effectively.”
It’s unknown how many total vaccines have gone to waste in Tennessee since it first started distributing them to residents. The Health Department has not responded to multiple emails asking for an updated amount.