Tennessee: Vaccines stolen, given to children in 1 county

Coronavirus

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s top health officials revealed Friday that the state has requested federal law enforcement investigate alleged theft of coronavirus vaccine doses in the state’s most populous county.

They also announced that a volunteer in Shelby County improperly vaccinated two children despite the shot not being cleared for young minors. Later Friday, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris announced that Dr. Alisa Haushalter, the director of the county health department, has resigned.

The developments come after the state previously announced that roughly 2,400 COVID-19 vaccine doses had been wasted in Shelby County over the past month due to miscommunication and insufficient record-keeping inside the local health department. The county, which includes Memphis, had also built up nearly 30,000 excessive vaccine doses in its inventory.

Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey declined to elaborate on the extent of the theft allegations, but said the Shelby County Health Department only alerted the state about the stolen doses after the state had asked the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to launch their own investigation.

Piercey did say, however, that the stolen shots are believed to have been taken by a volunteer who ran off with the vaccine in syringes — not the actual vials the shots are kept in.

In a statement, the county health department said a supervisor received information that a volunteer medical professional was acting suspicious at the vaccination site where the alleged theft took place. The volunteer was removed from the site and law enforcement was contacted, but the county health department claims no theft report was filed because there was not enough information.

The FBI has been made aware of the situation, FBI spokesman Joel Siskovic said Friday. Siskovic did not confirm or deny if an investigation was underway.

Meanwhile, Piercey said the state is still scrambling to learn more about how a volunteer immunized two children on Feb. 3. Piercey said a mother with two children arrived at a vaccination site and all three had appointments. It’s unclear if the children will receive a second dose.

On top of the nearly 2,400 shots reported wasted, the health department says more vaccines were wasted this week in Shelby County. Sixty-four unused doses went to waste while 12 more were unaccounted for after a Tuesday vaccination event.

“At the end of the day there does seem to be a lack of accountability and in some sense, leadership. That has led to undoubtedly potential harm to some folks,” Piercey told reporters.

Piercey stressed that despite the past week’s revelations, her focus remained on getting as many shots into arms as possible.

Speaking with reporters at a vaccination site in Memphis, Gov. Bill Lee said he was disappointed with the developments in Shelby County. Lee said the state is working with the city of Memphis, which has taken over vaccine storage and distribution from the county health department.

“That speaks to the great deal of concern that we have,” Lee said about Memphis replacing the county health department with vaccine management.

Along with news of the alleged theft and vaccines given to children, the state’s health department also provided email correspondences with Haushalter, director of the Shelby County Health Department in Memphis.

Earlier this week, Haushalter said she called and left a message for Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the state health department’s immunization program director, to discuss the wasted vaccines on Feb. 13. Haushalter said she did not talk to the state until Feb. 19, when the investigation launched after her first public statements about the wasted vaccines.

According to emails released by the state, Haushalter emailed Fiscus on Feb. 17 but made no mention of wasted doses. Instead, she asked Fiscus to contact her “when your time permits.” Fiscus said there was no sense of urgency in Haushalter’s attempt to contact her.

Piercey said in an email to Fiscus that she also spoke with Haushalter for 15 minutes on Feb. 16, but there was “no mention was made of any expired product.”

Haushalter also said Wednesday that she found out about additional wasted vaccines Feb. 13, but did not publicly disclose that information until six days later, on Feb. 19, when she said about 1,315 vaccine doses that had expired and were thrown out amid a series of winter storms that shut down vaccination sites.

Harris, the county mayor, announced during a county commission meeting that Haushalter has tendered her resignation from her position and has made plans to retire. Harris said Haushalter has worked “ferociously” over the past year on the county’s coronavirus response.

Separately, later Friday, Rutherford County Schools — in middle Tennessee — announced 1,000 doses had to be tossed due to a storage error, school officials announced.

The school says the doses were stored in an unapproved freezer and the temperature of the vaccines were not under constant monitoring.

Meanwhile, earlier this month, officials in Knox County announced that 975 doses had been accidentally thrown away by someone who thought they were throwing out dry ice. The state has also launched an investigation into that incident.

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Sainz reported from Memphis, Tennessee.

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