Tennessee state investigation uncovers possible vaccine theft in Shelby County, children getting COVID-19 vaccine

Updated: Feb. 26, 2021 at 1:41 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said Friday that a Shelby County Health Department volunteer may have stolen multiple doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, and another volunteer administered the vaccine to children.

WATCH LIVE | Shelby County Commissioners hold special meeting about vaccine mismanagement

These were just a few of the revelations to come out of a Friday briefing during which Piercey gave an update on the state’s investigation into vaccine mismanagement within the Shelby County Health Department.

According to Piercey, after personnel from the Tennessee Department of Health deployed to Shelby County to investigate vaccine waste, they heard about an incident in which a volunteer was suspected of stealing multiple doses already drawn up in syringes during a Feb. 3 vaccine event.

Piercey says she spoke with Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris earlier this week about the potential theft, which she says he knew about but there was no report to state or federal partners or authorities.

RELATED | Director of Shelby County Health Dept. resigns amid investigation into vaccine mismanagement

The FBI was later notified of the potential theft. An FBI spokesperson told WMC Friday they could not comment on whether they are investigating the incident.

An SCHD spokesperson released a statement about the potential theft Friday, saying they removed the volunteer after receiving information about “suspicious behavior”:

Our understanding is that in the beginning of February, a site supervisor received information that a volunteer might have engaged in suspicious behavior. Although there were no witnesses to a theft, other staff were suspicious of the volunteer, who is a medical professional. The Shelby County Health Department removed the volunteer from the premises and the site supervisor contacted law enforcement regarding the incident. Law enforcement concluded that there was insufficient information to file a report of any theft or unlawful conduct.”

Piercey also says Harris mentioned two children received the vaccine at the City of Memphis’ Appling site Feb. 3. The children reportedly had appointments along with their mother so a volunteer administered the vaccine, which is not approved for use in children. Piercey says she does not have any information about the children after they received the vaccine, but an incident report was filed.

Piercey provided a timeline of notable events involving mismanagement beginning in January when she says TDH identified growing vaccine inventory in Shelby County. She says leaders at the Shelby County Health Department repeatedly gave vague explanations, primarily attributing it to a documentation backlog.

The issue came up in mid- to late January, Piercey says, when there was concern Shelby County wasn’t getting its fair share of vaccine allocation. In an effort to be responsive, TDH and TEMA deployed 26 FEMA workers to Memphis to help with the backlog.

Despite FEMA’s help with data entry, Piercey says the inventory remained high. In a Feb. 16 conversation with Dr. Alisa Haushalter, director of the Shelby County Health Department, Piercey says Haushalter again attributed it to a documentation backlog but admitted she didn’t know how many doses were in inventory. Three days later, Haushalter made the first report of expired doses -- 1,315 by their report, but TDH notes it as 1,578 because of a difference in packaging.

Piercey says it wasn’t until TDH mentioned a federal investigation that SCHD leaders disclosed an additional 840 expired doses. More expiration events were then discovered as part of the investigation.

Piercey says there were also several instances of doses being drawn into syringes and then wasted -- 18 doses on an unknown date and 64 after a Feb. 23 vaccine event. There were also 12 unaccounted for doses after the Feb. 23 vaccine event.

On Thursday, TDH said it was contacted by the CDC regarding wasted and unused COVID-19 vaccine doses by the Shelby County Health Department. The CDC said it is aware of reports of COVID-19 vaccine wastage in Shelby County and has spoken with public health officials in the county and state.

On Friday afternoon, Gov. Bill Lee visited the Pipkin Building vaccine site in Memphis, reiterating his disappointment and concern with Shelby County’s vaccine issues.

“There have been some very serious challenges, some very disappointing circumstances that unfolded over the last several days,” said Lee. “We have a great deal of concern about that, and one of our greatest concerns is to make sure that the residents of Shelby County continue to get vaccines in a timely fashion and that the process is not slowed down.”

Lee says the City of Memphis is working well with the Tennessee Department of Health after taking the reins from SCHD.

“We have intervened into the challenges that exist here, and we’re working with the City to create a process that makes sure vaccines continue to get out,” said Lee. “And they’re doing a very good job of making sure those vaccines are put in the arms of Shelby Countians.”

Lee and Piercey said the other 94 health departments in the state are distributing vaccines well and appropriately. Lee says there’s no reason to believe vaccines are being mismanaged in other Tennessee counties and there’s no plan at this them to step up state oversight in other counties.

“When we determined there was concern about this process (in Shelby County), we put people on the ground. That began our investigation in what we saw as a concern. The concerns we had, they came to reality as we put people on the ground. We acted swiftly and intervened significantly and have taken over that process as a result.”

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