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Health Department Official Calls Some Criticism 'Unjustified'

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Blake Farmer / WPLN News
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Shelby County’s health officer Dr. Bruce Randolph sought to reassure the public while coming to the defense of the health department on Thursday, saying the findings from a recent federal review  “exonerated” it from speculation that any of the COVID-19 vaccines administered over a roughly eight-week period may have lacked proper temperature controls. This would have rendered them ineffective. 

“Sufficient evidence exists indicating that vaccine administered by SCHD during the period December 28 - February 24, 2021, was maintained within temperature ranges congruent with maintaining stability of the product,” the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reads.

In short, no re-vaccinations are necessary. Vaccine vials are extremely temperature sensitive and are considered useless if they are not kept in conditions in line with manufacturer—Pfizer and Moderna—instructions. Federal inspectors consulted the companies to confirm certain doses that may have been exposed to temperatures outside their prescribed range were not ruined.

“It shows that we did our job, and you can hold your head up and not be ashamed,” Randolph said, thanking public health workers for their “sacrifices” during vaccine roll out.

The CDC’s audit, requested by state officials, was not comprehensive outside of looking at the temperatures linked to the storage and transportation of vaccines. It did not address what led to the investigation to begin with: thousands of spoiled doses last month, which the state blamed on mismanagement and bad record keeping, among other things.

“Involvement of multiple federal agencies, including the CDC and FDA, speaks to the seriousness of the situation,” Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said in a statement. “No other county in the state has warranted CDC intervention to analyze whether over 50,000 doses were handled properly. Shelby County residents deserve the benefit of a solid improvement plan for vaccine services moving forward, not a defense of the status quo.”

Randolph also said the health department has been unfairly targeted for two additional mishaps last month. One involved suspected theft of syringes by a volunteer from the Mid-South Fairgrounds drive-up site, which may be investigated by the FBI, and the other related to the vaccination of two children.  

Although clinical trials are currently underway, vaccines have not been federally approved for anyone under 16 years of age.

“It wasn’t the health department—their staff—who committed those particular errors,” Randolph said. 

A volunteer at a site under the purview of the City of Memphis and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center vaccinated a 13-year-old and an eight-year-old. 

Dr. Jon McCullers with UTHSC said the adolescents had appointments along with their mother so the volunteer assumed it was fine. 

McCullers was notified about a week after it happened and had an employee contact the family to check on the children. The mom reportedly left the age column blank when signing them up. 

“Kids were absolutely fine, had no side effects from the vaccine,” McCullers said, adding that they will not receive a second shot in Shelby County.

He said there’s no reason to believe that vaccinations are not safe for adolescents, but that clinical trials will provide more information on whether dose size should be adjusted for them. 

The incident in Shelby County was documented in a report to the health department, McCullers noted and submitted to the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System database. 

For him, putting safeguards in place so it doesn’t happen again is more important than pointing fingers.

“It’s the system that’s at fault so we went back and said, 'What did we do wrong?'” he said.

Now site workers are briefed each morning on who is currently eligible for vaccination and are encouraged to speak up if they have any doubts.

“They check ID at the front so [workers] make sure you’re age appropriate even before they get back to the vaccinators,” McCullers added is an additional preventative measure. 

More mistakes are inevitable given the enormity of the vaccination campaign he says, but they’re only solved if addressed systemically.

“The systems all get better,” he said. “Somebody else is going to learn from us because we made a mistake, just as other people make a mistake around the country, we’re going to learn from them.”