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"Mismanagement" at Health Department Did Not Impact Administered Doses

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State and federal inspectors have found that around 55,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses given by the Shelby County Health Department from the end of December through late February are fully effective, after a lack of available temperature logs initially called them into question.

An extensive state review found spotty record keeping, but ultimately proper temperatures were maintained for the vaccines that were distributed. The Pfizer vaccine, in particular, is extremely temperature sensitive and is not usable if not stored and transported in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions.

“We can confidently reassure all recipients of vaccine at Shelby County sites that the doses they received were stable and effective,” Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said at a press briefing Monday.

State workers, with help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and vaccine manufacturers, relied on information from both digital and handwritten temperature logs and personal interviews to complete their audit.

The state’s broad investigation began after local health department officials revealed that a batch of more than 1,000 doses had expired in mid-February. While severe local winter weather was initially blamed for the spoilage, more losses were soon uncovered—more than 2,500 shots over a series of weeks.

Though the official investigation findings are still being drafted, Piercey says a primary conclusion is multiple shortcomings related to internal vaccination management within the Shelby County Health Department.

“The bottom line is there was poor record keeping,” Piercey said. “There was a lack of standard operating procedure—at least one that could be followed consistently—and that is what was the root cause of the mismanagement.”

She also noted issues created by the health department’s arrangement with a contracted pharmacist, who had sole access to the stored vaccine vials.

A shortage of safeguards to prevent waste and standardized protocols at the health department prompted the state to turn COVID-19 vaccination operations over to the City of Memphis, but Piercey praised the local department’s efforts to correct errors.

She says the CDC will continue to partner with them on a separate Vaccines for Children program. 

“The Shelby County Health Department has been very compliant and cooperative during this entire process,” she said. “They certainly regret what has happened but want to learn and go forward in a more productive way.”

The county is now searching for a new permanent health department director after Dr. Alisa Haushalter resigned several weeks ago following the release of  some of the state’s findings.

Piercey said she regretted that “it had to turn out this way,” and called Haushalter a “humble public servant” and a “consummate professional.”

“Shelby Countians should be grateful, and I’m grateful for the service she’s given,” she said.

Piercey did not have an update on a possible FBI investigation into a suspected theft of vaccine syringes from a Shelby County distribution site in February.

Vaccine waste is thought to be under-reported across the county. In addition to Shelby County’s losses, another roughly 1,000 doses were accidentally trashed in Knox County in February.

Piercey says the goal is to prevent more waste in the future.

“Nobody wants to waste any doses," Dr. Piercey said. "Shelby County Health Department didn’t want to waste any doses. That makes it imperative that we follow this process.”