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Shelby Co. Health Dept. Axed from Vaccine Chain After Waste Investigation

Daniel Schludi / Unsplash (Creative Commons)


The Shelby County Health Department let thousands of coveted COVID-19 vaccine doses spoil in seven separate instances dating back to Feb. 3, state health officials have found. An investigation team cited a lack of appropriate procedures and communication.

In reaction, state health department staff will now be on site to closely monitor—at least for several weeks—vaccine operations here and redirect responsibilities away from the local health department. A federal probe may follow. 

A team deployed by the state last Fridaysays that only a portion of the more than 2,400 expired doses could be blamed on complications caused by recent winter storms, which shuttered mass vaccination sites on multiple days over a two-week period. 

Over the past several days, investigators also found the health department has been sitting on more than 30,000 doses that should have already been put in arms but not yet expired.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey says the goal now is "not to point fingers" but to take swift action. 

“It's really the time to problem solve and to set processes in place so this doesn't happen in the future, and not only for Shelby County,” she said during a press conference Tuesday. “It helps inform us about weak points or weak spots in any health department that could happen and to keep us alert for those.” 

For now, the Shelby County Health Department will no longer receive vaccine shipments from the state. Current reserves are being redistributed to the City of Memphis, area hospitals, pharmacies and so-called safety net clinics. 

The bulk is expected to go to the city, which is also taking over operations of drive-thru vaccination sites such as theproblem-plagued Pipkin building in Midtown and the newest county location, the Greater Imani Church in the Raleigh neighborhood. 

In a separate press conference, Tiffany Collins with Mayor Jim Strickland’s office, said the Appling City Cove vaccination site, which was already under the city’s purview, has been running more efficiently due to improved protocols such as not letting people line up in their cars hours before their assigned appointment times. 

Pressure is now on for the city and others to speed up the pace of vaccinations so no more doses have to be trashed. Shelby County, as a whole, will continue to get its weekly vaccine allotment based on its population, Piercey said. 

Doug McGowen, the city’s chief operating officer, says that should be 13,700 new doses next week. Officials are hoping to administer roughly 40,000 vaccinations in the county this week, including a mass vaccine campaign for teachers and rescheduled appointments postponed by last week's snowy weather.

“It will be using all of the Shelby County Health Department’s inventory in order to do that, so we’ll move as much of that product out of the inventory and into arms this week,” he said. 

The state’s ongoing investigation pointed to several problems with the local health department’s internal vaccine protocols, including poor tracking and “no formal process for management of soon-to-expire vaccine doses.” 

Piercey noted the state was only informed of one batch of expired doses last Friday, a week after they spoiled, which prompted the state audit. 

Dr. Michelle Fiscus, who took part in the investigation, says one primary issue was a lack of coordination between health department staff and an onsite—but contracted—pharmacy that stored and dispensed the vials. This led to entire trays of vaccines being thawed even if fewer doses were needed. 

“It wasn’t necessarily told to the folks in the health department that those remaining vaccines were in the refrigerator, and once they hit the refrigerator, the clock starts ticking,” Fiscus said. “They have 120 hours to use them.”  

Soon, experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also are expected to help with oversight of local vaccine distribution, possibly for up to a month.  

“There’s really no higher priority in the state right now than making sure that we get this right in Shelby County, and so we’re willing to put whatever resource[s] we need,” Piercey said.


Katie is a part-time WKNO contributor. She's always eager to hear your story ideas. You can email her at kriordan@wkno.org