by Vivian Jones
The Shelby County Health Department director has resigned after a state investigation uncovered potential theft of COVID-19 vaccine doses, evidence that two children were inappropriately vaccinated and a handwritten log as the only record sent to the state documenting expired doses.
Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey shared Friday that after a week-long investigation into vaccine waste by the SCHD, the state received only one record of vaccine waste from county health officials: a scrawling six-line, handwritten log labeled “Pfizer waste.”
In emails exchanged between Piercey and Dr. Michelle Fiscus, who leads Tennessee’s immunization program, the two referred to the log as “chicken scratch.”
Emails and a screenshot of text messages released Friday by the Tennessee Department of Health on Friday reveal Shelby County health officials lacked any urgency to communicate with the state about expiring vaccine doses.
“Had [officials] at any time indicated in any communication that they were concerned about vaccines expiring, I would have dropped everything,” Fiscus wrote last week in an email to TDH Chief Medical Officer Tim Jones. “There was never any indication they had an urgent concern about vaccines expiring.”
Piercey called the Shelby County Health Department a “low accountability organization.”
“There does appear to be a lack of accountability, and in some sense leadership, which has undoubtedly potentially harmed and withheld vaccine for people who needed it,” Piercey said.
Continued inquiries by state officials this week revealed a potential theft of vaccine doses occurred Feb. 3. The incident happened at the Pipkin Building vaccine site in Memphis, when a volunteer appeared to leave the site with several vaccine doses that had been drawn into syringes, Piercey said.
State officials have reported the incident to the FBI. Because of the ongoing investigation, Piercey could not discuss additional details.
“It was a volunteer at one of their sites, and that volunteer is no longer working at that site or any of the sites to my knowledge,” Piercey said.
The state’s investigation also revealed a mother and two children were able to make an appointment and received the vaccine Feb. 3 at the city of Memphis’ Appling vaccination site.
No COVID-19 vaccine is authorized for use on children. Pfizer is conducting clinical trials of the vaccine for children ages 12 to 15, but the vaccine is not authorized for children under 16.
An incident report completed at the time reported a volunteer vaccinated the children because the volunteer “believed that that is what he or she was supposed to do if the person had an appointment,” Piercey said, who did not recall whether the report contained any names to allow the state to follow up with the family.
“I’m unsure if we even know who that is right now,” Piercey said
The state’s investigation began last week when Shelby County Health Department director Alisa Haushalter announced more than 1,300 vaccine doses had expired and were thrown away. State officials visiting Shelby County over the weekend to investigate found significant issues in record keeping and mismanagement of doses. In total, about 2,400 doses had expired in Shelby County since Feb 3.
Officials also found excess inventory of more than 30,000 doses.
“By necessity, it withheld doses from the elderly,” Piercey said. “There is a limited supply. If it is held in stockpile or an excess inventory, it is by default not getting into the arm of an elderly individual who desperately needs it.”
Gov. Bill Lee visited Memphis on Friday to speak with Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and other city officials.
“There are a lot of questions that need to be asked. At the very least, I can say that there has been a real lack of leadership there,” Lee said of the Shelby County Health Department.
Lee emphasized the state transferred vaccine allocation authority away from the Shelby County Health Department and vaccine efforts are continuing with gusto.
“One of our greatest concerns is that the residents of Shelby County continue to get vaccines in a timely fashion,” Lee said.
Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris held an extraordinary meeting Friday with members of the Shelby County Commission.
“Reports of vaccine expiring in Shelby County was gut-wrenching to me,” Harris told commissioners.
Haushalter tendered her resignation from the county health department Friday, Harris announced at the meeting. Her last day in office will be March 15.
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Vivian Jones is a contributor to The Center Square.