What went wrong? Breaking down Shelby County’s vaccine debacle


MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The COVID vaccine process has led to big changes at the Shelby County Health Department.

Wednesday, Director Alisa Haushalter confirmed that one supervisor, Judy Martin, has retired, and  pharmacist Dr. Marilyn Bruce is no longer in her job after thousands of vaccine doses that should have been in people’s arms were actually thrown out.

The question now is, how could it happen, and what procedures should have been followed and were not.

Health Department takes heat after investigation into wasted vaccines; mayor calls accusations ‘theater’

From the outset, health officials made it clear there were time limits on using the COVID vaccine and in some cases, certain temperature requirements. 

That means when the vaccine doses arrive at the state health department they have to be stored. When trays are pulled and taken to vaccination sites, the clock is ticking. 

But not all the trays that were pulled by Shelby County Health Department were actually used

Haushalter blames it on several things: communication, a plan to vaccinate teachers that was suddenly changed, and then an epic storm that put everything on ice. 

“We had an exceptionally long period of inclement weather that not only was going to impact expiration dates, but also greatly impacted our inventory,” Haushalter said. “We continued to receive vaccine even during the snow storm.”

By the time the health department started counting the number, expired doses started adding up.

“In the pharmacy, there had been some other smaller doses left unused at the end of the day or prior to being placed out for use,” Haushalter said.

The state was notified.

City of Memphis takes over vaccine distribution amid scandal. Here’s what you need to know

Now the City of Memphis has been given charge of vaccinations and the state is keeping an eye on the process. 

The health department says it will continue to administer shots, but the city of Memphis will be responsible for getting vaccines to locations, and logistics.

Gov. Bill Lee said he was disappointed with what has happened, but said the state does not plan to take over operations.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said he still had confidence in the leadership of the health department, and said that the county’s side of the story hadn’t been told.

But 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.”

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