Tennessee used military might to help City of Memphis vaccine program

Military effort to make sure vaccines are stored properly

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - New information about the COVID-19 vaccine that went to waste in Shelby County is slowly coming to light, as well as what it means for those who’ve gotten vaccinated.

While state and federal investigators try and figure out what went wrong with the Shelby County Health Department’s vaccine program, WMC Action News 5 learned that Tennessee officials used the might of the military to make sure the City of Memphis gets it right.

“Let me tell you, about the really heroic and swift efforts that occurred on Wednesday,” Dr. Lisa Piercey, head of the Tennessee Department of Health, told reporters.

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To make sure the City of Memphis had the tools needed to take over the COVID-19 vaccination program from the Shelby County Government, Piercey said the state tracked down hard to find digital data loggers and eight transport coolers and then used a military chopper to get them to the Bluff City within hours.

”Along with our National Guard partners, they got in a Black Hawk helicopter and flew that route between Smyrna and Chattanooga and got those pieces of equipment to Memphis,” said Piercey.

The state also bought a new refrigerator for Regional One where the Pfizer vaccine is stored for the City of Memphis. Poplar Healthcare on Hacks Cross is storing the Moderna product for the City of Memphis.

Digital data loggers, digital thermometers tracking the temperature of the vaccine, are critical to the operation.

“From the very minute vaccine leaves the factory or the distributor, all the way through transport and to storage in a health department, then on transport to a site until it gets in somebody’s arm, we have to know the temperature all throughout,” said Piercey.

Shelby County’s 2,500 wasted doses, Piercey said, had been left out of refrigeration for too long. The state is still investigating whether any Shelby County residents received a vaccine that was improperly stored.

WMC Action News 5 has received numerous emails and phone calls from citizens wondering if they received an expired dose and if that can be harmful.

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“So there’s no indication that if a vaccine was slightly expired, that it would have any toxicity or any danger to the person who received it. The real question would be: is it still effective?” said Infectious Disease Expert Dr. Steve Threlkeld with Baptist Memorial Hospital.

Threlkeld said there’s no official guidance from drug companies or government officials about this.

Piercey said the investigation and the vaccination process in Shelby County are both moving forward.

“The only thing worse than what we’ve got going on is actually slowing down on getting needles in arms,” she said. “We will not slow down vaccination efforts. As long as I believe it safe and effective, we will honor the appointments. We will honor the schedule and the events.”

Piercey said if investigators find out anyone received an expired dose, that person will likely be allowed to get another shot.

No announcement from Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris yet on an interim replacement for health department director Dr. Alisa Haushalter who announced her resignation last week after the state announced the findings of its investigation into vaccine waste.  Her last day in the office is March 15.

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