MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Tennessee Department of Health said public comments Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris made alerted state investigators to “yet another significant violation” with the Shelby County Health Department’s vaccine management.
Harris spoke to reporters on Wednesday about the investigation into how the Shelby County Health Department wasted 2,400 vaccine doses.
Harris criticized Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and his administration and appeared to blame them for Shelby County’s vaccine problems.
He also said some of the information the state has released about the vaccines in Shelby County’s custody was not accurate.
“Obviously, there was 50,000 doses on the shelf. But a lot of those doses were for teacher vaccinations and missed appointments,” said Harris. “If you have a state that’s 50 out of 50, then someone is not at the wheel. I think that lies at the feet at the doorstep of Governor Bill Lee. I think he’s not doing an active job of managing this pandemic.”
Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey released the following statement after Harris made his comments:
“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.”
Shelby County Health Department Director Dr. Alisa Haushalter also mentioned stockpiling vaccines for teachers during an afternoon press conference.
“Some of those were in reserve to be able to vaccinate the teachers, and then others were scheduled for administration,” said Haushalter.
Shelby County Commissioner Mark Billingsley said Harris needs to step up and lead.
“If you want to be the mayor, you have to have the responsibility. The buck stops with you,” Billingsley said. “If Mayor Harris isn’t up to that challenge, then he needs to step aside.”
It comes as an internal investigation continues into how it all could have happened.
Haushalter said it was the pharmacist’s job to take inventory and to track all the vaccines.
Haushalter said access to the pharmacy was limited and when leadership discovered the problem, it was too late.
Haushalter says the health department is working to fix those problems so they don’t happen again.
She also said two employees are no longer in their positions.
One of them, Judy Martin, was the health department’s chief of nursing.
Haushalter said Martin had retired.
The other, who Haushalter identified as “Dr. Bruce,” is the contract pharmacist.
When WMC asked the health department to provide the first name of Dr. Bruce, health department spokeswoman Joan Carr said the health department does not comment on personal matters and suggested the station file a public records request with Regional One, Dr. Bruce’s employer.
Given the fact that the vaccines were wasted under her watch, WMC asked Haushalter
if she thought she should resign.
“There’s always opportunities to consider whether one should resign or not resign, so I would say on any given day that’s something that consider,” Haushalter said. “I’m actually at retirement age, so that’s something that I should consider and have considered.”
Haushalter said her responsibilities as it relates to the wasted vaccines was to be as transparent as possible.
“And so, I have made it my responsibility and it is my responsibility to be accountable for what has occurred, to elevate to the state when I knew there was wasted doses, which I did, to work closely with the state to determine what the issues were, and to resolve those issues in a systematic and organized way,” said Haushalter. “And from that perspective, I believe I am doing all that I can within my role, to be able to demonstrate to the community that our purpose here is to serve the community.”
Shelby County Commissioner Mark Billingsley said his confidence in the health department leadership is dwindling and says others need to step up, specifically Mayor Harris.
“I’m grateful for those who are stepping up to lead,” Billingsley said, mentioning Gov. Lee and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. “For those that want to fingerpoint, I think the fingers are pointing right back at those people that are responsible for the deficiencies that were found.”