Shelby County allowed roughly 2,400 COVID vaccine doses to expire this month, and the local health department has more than 50,000 doses in its inventory — twice what it should have — state officials said Tuesday.
The findings come after health officials in Tennessee’s biggest county disclosed about 1,000 doses had expired earlier this month.
The Tennessee Department of Health has now embedded its own people in the local health department. Dr. Lisa Piercey, the state’s health commissioner, has also asked for help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This is not to point fingers or place blame,” she said on a call with reporters Tuesday. “This is because the people of Shelby County deserve efficient and effective access to this vaccine.”
In its investigation since Friday, Piercey says she has found no evidence of anything “nefarious” or “malicious.” State officials say it appears poor communication and a complicated organizational structure are to blame for the wasted doses.
Dr. Michelle Fiscus, who is overseeing the state’s vaccine rollout, has been on-site in Memphis working with the local health department, which outsources its pharmacy to an outside entity. And that pharmacy has had near total control of the county’s COVID vaccine supply.
So when the local health department would ask for 800 doses for a clinic, the pharmacy would thaw a tray of vaccine, which includes 1,170 doses. The rest would go into the refrigerator, where they need to be used within a matter of days. Fiscus says it seems the pharmacy and local health department weren’t working in tandem to make sure no doses went to waste.
Doses have been allowed to expire on seven different occasions since the start of February. Only one was weather-related, state officials say.
The excess inventory
It’s unclear why the local health department had more than 50,000 doses in its inventory. Piercey says it should have been more like 20,000. So the state is taking 30,000 doses and distributing them to the city of Memphis, local hospitals and nonprofit clinics to administer doses as quickly as possible.
“We’re definitely making very drastic changes…for the foreseeable future,” Piercey says.
The inefficiencies in Shelby County are partially to blame for the state’s declining ranking in vaccination speed, state health officials say. Tennessee has now slipped in the rankings for first doses, after initially being ahead of most states. Last week’s crippling winter weather is partially to blame, Piercey says, but so is the slowness in Shelby County.
“They get about 14% of all the doses statewide, and so when that is not maximally efficient, it brings the entire state’s performance down,” she says.
Shelby County health officials have not responded to requests for comment about why so many doses were sitting around unused. The county commission passed a resolution Monday night asking the state to step in.
State officials expect federal authorities to open an inquiry into the waste and speed issues.