State health department lead comes down hard on Shelby County

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In a scathing review, Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey detailed what she described as a pattern of incompetence and waste with the Shelby County Health Department’s vaccination efforts.

“I want to set this in context. We’re talking about one county out of 95,” Piercey said of Shelby County, while praising the rest of Tennessee.

Piercey took aim at Shelby County, going into extreme detail about the levels of incompetence and mismanagement at the Health Department, especially their lack of leadership.

“It appears their team of normal vaccine experts in Shelby county were not in charge of the COVID-19 vaccine response,” Piercey said.

She said she didn’t know why the department made that choice, but it’s having far-reaching negative impacts that have led to communication breakdowns, thousands of vaccine doses thrown away and now an FBI investigation.

Officials said a volunteer at the Pipkin Building might’ve stolen syringes of vaccine..

“Yesterday was February 25. It was the first time we’d been made aware of this theft on February 3. To our knowledge, and in the documentation provided by Mayor Harris, that was not reported to any state or federal authorities,” Piercey said. “Pursuant to the knowledge about potential theft of this federal resource, I had to alert Mayor [Lee] Harris we had to report this to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. My general counsel did that last night.”

Health Department officials have disputed this claim and said law enforcement was notified.

Piercey said she didn’t know why it took more than three weeks and a phone call to County Mayor Lee Harris for her to find out about the incident.

Harris later told the Shelby County Commission he was not sure what he was required to report to the state.

Piercey also said a volunteer at the Appling site vaccinated two children. She said the Health Department did not provide identification information.

“Because there was an appointment, this volunteer gave the children the vaccine. This was reported internally with management of site but not reported to state until yesterday,” she said.

WREG has previously covered the Health Department not confirming eligibility with people who presented for appointments. Director Alisa Haushalter later said it would slow down the process and asked people to be honest when signing up.

All of these incidents point to the greater disorganization Piercey highlights in a timeline she released to the public showing she sent FEMA to Shelby County back on February 2 when the state first noticed the county’s low vaccination rates.

She said Dr. Alisa Haushalter told her it was a data lag, something her team also told WREG when we noted the lag around the time. Now, Piercey said they know it was because the health department was stockpiling and having to throw away expired vaccine.

Piercey described a pattern of not emptying vials during vaccinations and letting the excess go to waste. She called Shelby County a “low accountability organization” and said Haushalter at one point told her she didn’t know how many doses they had in inventory.

Piercey presented emails and a text message that showed no one from the Health Department ever reported the vaccine wastage.

“We weren’t disclosed anything until finally we reminded them there was likely going to be a federal investigation. That is when the additional 840 doses were disclosed on February 22 that were wasted or expired on February 15,” she said.

When Harris spoke to County Commission Friday he said the county had failed in being transparent to the public and he had plans for improvement. He later talked about remediation planning at a briefing with news reporters.

“Our objective is to take corrective action after learning of the expired doses that was higher than what was first reported. There was nothing more gut-wrenching,” Harris said.

Haushalter did not address Commission to respond to the allegations and tendered her resignation Friday. A spokesperson for the Health Department acknowledged receipt of WREG’s questions about the state allegations, but they never responded with any answers.

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