MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Bad record keeping. Lack of communication. Poor management of the vaccine. And no proof they kept the doses properly cooled. The results of the state of Tennessee’s month-long investigation into the mismanagement of vaccine distribution in Shelby County are shocking.
”So probably the first action I wanted to draw your attention to came about in late January,” Dr. Lisa Piercey, head of the Tennessee Department of Health, told reporters as she provided a timeline of events in the state’s investigation.
Last month, as local leaders questioned Shelby County’s vaccine allotment from the state, the Tennessee Department of Health noticed the Shelby County Health Department had an increasing supply of vaccines sitting on its shelves.
”When we talked to Shelby County about why that inventory was growing, the repeated rationale was that they had a backlog in documentation,” said Piercey.
Feb. 3, as vaccination wait times exceeded three to four hours and people were turned away from the Pipkin site despite having appointments to get the vaccine, 26 FEMA staff members arrived in Memphis. The state pharmacist was shocked by what he saw during his visit.
“He characterized the Shelby County Health Department as a low accountability organization,” said Piercey.
On Feb. 16, Piercey said Dr. Alisa Haushalter, head of the Shelby County Health Department, was unable to explain why excess doses were in storage.
“She also admitted that she wasn’t for certain how many doses were in inventory,” said Piercey.
On Feb. 19 SCHD reported its first batch of expired doses, more than 1,500. And the state counted more than 51,000 doses in inventory. Further investigation revealed a total of 2,500 expired doses.
Shelby County’s official documentation for wasted doses included a hand-scribbled note the state referred to as “chicken scratch.”
Also troubling said Piercey: Shelby County cannot prove it kept its vaccine doses at the proper temperature in the SCHD pharmacy or when it was delivered to vaccination sites.
“So right now, our team is working feverishly to try to mine the data that we have available to us and put all the pieces of this puzzle together so we can ensure the integrity of that cold chain temperature all throughout the process,” she said.
It was revealed Friday that a volunteer at the Pipkin site may have stolen syringes filled with vaccines. And two children who were not eligible to receive the vaccine were vaccinated at the Appling site. Both incidents occurred on Feb. 3. The FBI is now involved in the Shelby County vaccine mismanagement case.
“There does appear to be a lack of accountability and in some sense, leadership which has undoubtedly potentially harmed some folks and withheld vaccine from people who need it,” said Piercey.
Haushalter eventually said doses were being reserved for teachers, which the state said is not allowed. She submitted her resignation to Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris on Friday. Two other employees, including the woman in charge of the vaccination program, were fired.
The City of Memphis is now in charge of the vaccine distribution. Piercey said she’s impressed by what she’s seen from the city team so far.
She confirmed the CDC is joining the investigation and will be sending someone to Memphis in the coming days.