Health Department takes heat after state investigation into wasted vaccines


MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The head of the Shelby County Health Department said Wednesday that corrective measures are underway after the state found numerous problems with its COVID-19 vaccine distribution system.

A day after the city took over vaccination efforts, Dr. Alisa Haushalter with the health department said they have already made some personnel changes and are actively looking to review and adopt state policies. The health department is also working closely with the state to finalize a remediation plan.

“We know that things have not gone perfectly but there are some key items that are critically important,” Haushalter said. “We reported in a timely manner to the state that we had discovered the wasted doses in our pharmacy. “

“Also we recognize that there were some procedures that were not in place or were not being followed that required some technical assistance. We welcomed the state team here to assist with that particular technical assistance.” 

Haushalter said she specifically asked the state to stop distributing vaccines to the local health department until they have exhausted their inventory of vaccine and until they have thoroughly reviewed the policies and personnel.

They are also looking to implement the usage of VaxQueue, which was launched by Shelby County over a month ago.

She said the health department reported the wasted vaccines to the state in a timely manner and blamed the snow storm for the very high inventory, about 30,000 doses more than recommended.

In a press briefing later Wednesday, Haushalter said she doesn’t believe the wasted vaccines were the result of anything intentional, though two employees have been removed from the process.

Dr. Judy Martin, director of nursing, had decided to retire, and Dr. Marilyn Bruce, the pharmacist contracted through Regional One, “has moved on,” Haushalter said.

Haushalter said she had considered resignation since she was close to retirement age anyway, but right now is committed to seeing the county through this process with transparency.

On Feb. 19, the Shelby County Health Department revealed that 1,315 doses of the vaccine that were set to expire had to be discarded after ice and snow closed vaccination sites.

“You’re all aware we’ve had to close sites the last week because of weather conditions,” Haushalter said.

But we now know, the Tennessee Department of Health’s investigation yielded more concerning results.

“We believe the majority of this wastage was not weather related. It was six different expiration events that occurred between February 3 and February 12,” Dr. Piercey said.

The Tennessee Department of Health conducted an investigation on the matter and determined the actual number of wasted vaccines was 2,400. The state also said there were about 30,000 excess doses on hand, and a lack of record keeping and standard procedures.

According to the state’s findings:

  • Seven incidents of vaccine waste amounting to more than 2,400 wasted doses
  • 51,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine in inventory. This amounts to an excess of about 30,000 doses. The goal is to administer the vaccine within seven to 10 days of receipt.
  • Lack of standard operating procedures for storage and handling of the vaccine
  • Insufficient record keeping
  • No formal process for management of soon-to-expire vaccine doses

Haushalter said the county believes the actual number of vaccines on hand was 43,000, and the state’s number was higher because they were estimating six doses per vial instead of the more standard five. She said the county was working to reduce that number.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said he still has confidence in the health department director and he says not all of the state’s accusations are true, calling it theater. 

“There was 50,000 doses on the shelf. But a lot of those doses were for teacher vaccinations and for missed appointments, so a lot of this story hasn’t been told,” Harris said. ‘So we’re going to tell this story and put out the right information.”

He did acknowledge that the wasted vaccine is a huge issue.

Harris did not elaborate on the county’s side of the story. He then went on to blame Tennessee Governor Bill Lee for the problems in Shelby County. 

” I think he’s (Lee) not doing an active job of managing this pandemic. I think he’s focused too much on issues that are beside the point,” Harris said.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee was asked Wednesday about the situation in Shelby County. Lee said he was disappointed but that the state’s main focus was on getting the vaccines into the arms of people in Shelby County.

“We are disappointed at hat happened in Shelby County, but we swiftly took action,” Lee said.

Lee said the state will not take over operation of the Shelby County Health Department, though the state is “intervening” by embedding state personnel along with CDC officials. 

Late Wednesday, Dr. Lisa Piercey with the Tennessee Department of Health said the mayor’s comments alerted them to more significant violations in the county’s vaccine program.

“With today’s confirmation of stockpiling the vaccine, the mayor‘s statements have alerted us to yet another significant violation with the Shelby County Health Department’s vaccine management. These statements reflect that vaccines were inappropriately withheld from an in-phase population over the course of several weeks. 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.”

Piercey said the state has notified the federal authorities, “but it’s my understanding that until it’s officially logged by Shelby County, that’s what will trigger that.”

State Rep. London Lamar (D-Memphis) said Wednesday she was disappointed and concerned by news of the wasted vaccines in Shelby County. However, she said the priority now should be getting vaccines out to the community.

“This is not a time to be pointing fingers to point blame,” Lamar said. “What this is, is an opportunity for us to realize that we do need more resources and staff and Shelby County and that there are more things we need to put in place in order to ensure that we can get the vaccines out in an effective and efficient manner.”

The health department said 110,546 doses of COVID vaccine have been administered in Shelby County as of Wednesday, and 32,714 people had received their second dose.

Earlier this month, the state investigated the Knox County Health Department in East Tennessee after 975 doses were accidentally thrown away.

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