NASHVILLE, Tenn. — UPDATE (Feb. 24): State health leaders also said that the Shelby County Health Department inappropriately withheld vaccines from people who were eligible for them over the course of several weeks.
Officials confirmed that the department was stockpiling the vaccine, which is not authorized according. They said that stockpiling it for a later phase unnecessarily prevented high-risk people from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
The full statement from Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey is below:
“With today’s confirmation of stockpiling the vaccine, the mayor‘s statements have alerted us to yet another significant violation with the Shelby County Health Department’s vaccine management. These statements reflect that vaccines were inappropriately withheld from an in-phase population over the course of several weeks. 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.”
After the Tennessee Department of Health started investigating an incident where more than 1,000 COVID-19 vaccines were thrown away at the Shelby County Health Department, state health workers will start working closely with the county to distribute the vaccine.
On Friday, Shelby County health leaders said more than 1,000 doses were thrown away because they expired. In a meeting on Tuesday, Dr. Lisa Piercey, the Tennessee Health Commissioner, said that inefficiencies with the Memphis-area health department brought down the state's overall distribution statistics.
State health leaders said that several other issues were found as a result of the investigation into the Shelby County Health Department. They said that a lag in data entry led to an excess of around 30,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. The county had a total of 51,000 doses in inventory.
Seven incidents of vaccine waste were also found, amounting to more than 2,400 wasted doses. State health leaders said they did not have any reason to believe anyone received an expired vaccine dose.
Officials said that they found insufficient record-keeping, no formal process for managing soon-to-expire doses and a lack of standard operating procedures for storing and handling the vaccine.
"It's not one single thing, but a combination of multiple things," said Dr. Piercey. "At no time do I believe there was a malicious intent."
Officials also said that the biggest issue was a lack of communication in Shelby County about the thawing of COVID-19 vaccines, which caused large amounts of the vaccine to expire.
Tennessee Department of Health workers will work with Shelby County works to monitor their pharmacy operation and provide technical assistance, officials said. They have also formally requested on-site help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The county's inventory of COVID-19 vaccines has been given to "proven community partners" for immediate administration. State leaders will also direct new allocations of the vaccine to the City of Memphis as well as hospitals, pharmacies and clinics in Shelby County.
Responsibilities for managing the vaccine will be transferred to hospital partners, instead of the Shelby County Health Department. State health leaders will also hold daily calls with the county's leadership to assist their on-site team.
“It’s important that we get this right for the people of Shelby County and for the state as a whole as we work to ensure equitable and efficient distribution of this life-saving vaccine to Tennesseans in all communities, especially those most vulnerable and underserved," said Dr. Piercey.
State health leaders said they expect federal officials may also investigate the situation in Shelby County.
Piercey also said during a briefing on Tuesday that policies governing nursing home visitation are expected to change soon, as the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine expands in the state.
She also said that the Food and Drug Administration is scheduled to meet and approve the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine later in the week.