MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A new audio recording obtained exclusively by WMC Action News 5 sheds more light on the communication problems behind the scenes at the Shelby County Health Department when thousands of COVID-19 vaccine doses expired last month.
A lack of urgency is how Tennessee health leaders described the initial response by the Shelby County Health Department.
WMC obtained the voicemail that Shelby County Health Department Director, Alisa Haushalter left for Tennessee’s immunization director, Dr. Michelle Fiscus on Feb. 15, almost two weeks after the state says the first batch of more than a thousand doses, had expired.
“Hi Dr. Fiscus. This is Alisa Haushalter. I hope you’re staying warm in Nashville,” Haushalter says at the beginning of the voicemail.
Haushalter said she wanted to talk to Fiscus but made no mention of the expired doses during the 41-second voicemail.
“There are some items here in Shelby County that I need to report to you and just share some other things with you. So, if you get a chance, feel free to call me back,” Haushalter said.
During what would be her final press conference as director, Haushalter said she attempted to reach Fiscus multiple times throughout the week but was unsuccessful.
“Ultimately, on Friday the 19th I called Dr. Tim Jones (Tennessee’s chief medical officer) and made a verbal report to him that we had wasted doses,” Haushalter said.
The state says the first 1,000 doses expired on Feb. 3.
In emails to colleagues, Fiscus said neither Haushalter nor Dr. Judy Martin, who ran Shelby County’s vaccination program, made any mention of expired vaccines when they attempted to reach her.
The Tennessee Health Department released a screenshot of a text message it says Martin sent to Fiscus on Saturday, Feb. 13 asking if she had time for a quick phone call from her and Dr. Haushalter.
Fiscus responded, saying she was at a wrestling tournament, but would probably be available after 5 p.m.
Martin replied, “Ok. Enjoy the day at the match!! We will touch bases with you tomorrow.”
Fiscus told her colleagues, “Had Haushalter and Martin at any time indicated in any communication that they were concerned about vaccines expiring I would have dropped everything. Dr. Haushalter’s comment that she reached out and my lack of response has no bearing on the vaccines having been expired or her mismanagement of this entire situation.”
Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said there are multiple ways for county health leaders to reach state health leaders if there’s an urgent matter.
“We communicate on somewhat of a regular basis, and there’s no question of how to get in touch with people when you need that,” said Piercey.
Piercey said she also had a conversation with Haushalter on Tuesday, Feb. 16 about vaccine inventory.
Haushalter has since resigned and Martin retired from the health department.
State health leaders announced their investigation found no expired doses were given to Shelby County residents.
For more stories on the COVID-19 pandemic, visit wmcactionnews5.com/coronavirus.
TDH says it is working on a final report to present to Mayor Lee Harris and the health department in the coming weeks.
Harris named an interim health department director, Dr. Lasonya Harirs-Hall.
The Shelby County Health Department has not provided a comment for this story.