Shelby Co. Health Department Leader Responds to Vaccine Waste Debacle
On Wednesday, Shelby County Health Department director Dr. Alisa Haushalter offered additional explanation for the recent loss of thousands of COVID-19 vaccines in their care, which led the state to—at least temporarily—strip the local agency of its vaccine distribution responsibilities.
Dr. Alisa Haushalter says she became aware of more than 1,000 spoiled doses on Feb 13, following a two-day closure of drive-thru vaccination locations because of an ice storm. She says she then tried for almost a week to notify the state.
The following Friday, the wastage was finally reported, setting in motion an investigation from state health officials. During their inquiry over the past weekend, they found that more than 2,400 doses had expired on seven separate occasions since Feb. 3.
The state health department did not return a request for comment on the communication lapse between the entities, but during Wednesday’s press conference, Haushalter defended her handling of the situation.
“It is my responsibility to be accountable for what has occurred, to elevate to the state when I knew there were wasted doses, which I did—to work closely with the state to determine what the issues were and to resolve those issues in a systematic and organized way,” she said.
Haushalter also described, sometimes in unspecific terms, how some of the losses may have happened, saying complications brought on by winter weather were a factor.
“There are a variety of things that contribute to expired doses. It can be that one they are pulled out and not used in a timely manner,” Haushalter said. “It can be that they were brought back and not able to be used because of a temperature change, or that they were unused doses at the end of the day.”
Haushalter acknowledged that poor communication between its contracted director of pharmacy services and other health department workers and a lack of other safeguards led to too many doses being thawed, which then expired on a pharmacy shelf.
Haushalter believes the mistakes were not willful, though she says internal protocols are changing and that the health department would like to resume their vaccination duties.
After the state’s findings went public, the contracted pharmacist is no longer working with the health department. Another staffer involved with immunization efforts hastily retired, though Haushalter thanked her for her years of service.
The state’s investigation also found that the local health department had a stockpile of vaccines that should have gone out—about 30,000 doses too many.
Haushalter says the doses accumulated in part because of an anticipated teacher vaccination campaign that was postponed.
State health commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said Wednesday that holding vaccines for teachers—who didn’t become eligible until this week—violated state guidelines.
“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 in a statement.
Haushalter says that numerous other doses didn’t make it to vaccine sites due to last week’s winter storms.
“Some of our pods can see up to 1,500 people a day,” Haushalter said. “So if you have two or three days where you’re not doing a specific site that can be upwards of 4,000 doses.”
Plus, the state continued to ship a routine allotment, which Haushalter eventually asked them to pause.
The state will no longer ship vaccines directly to the health department for the time being and instead has reassigned the City of Memphis, hospitals and pharmacies with the task. The city has also taken over operations at several of the health department’s drive-thru vaccine sites.
In addition, state health workers are overseeing the local health department’s efforts to redesign their vaccination protocols to prevent waste in the future. Federal experts are also expected to assist and likely initiate their own investigation.