- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 23, 2021

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - More than 2,400 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in Tennessee’s most populous county went to waste over the past month while local officials sat on tens of thousands of shots that they thought had already gone into arms, the state’s top health official announced Tuesday.

The finding comes after the Department of Health launched an investigation over the weekend into an initial report that recent severe winter storms caused 1,000 doses to be tossed in Shelby County, which encompasses Memphis.

But Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey on Tuesday revealed that the problems were far more widespread. She said issues dating back to Feb. 3 ranged from multiple incidents of spoiled doses, an excessive vaccine inventory, insufficient record-keeping and a lack of a formal process for managing soon-to-expire vaccines. A federal investigation is also expected.

“The people of Shelby County deserve efficient and effective vaccinations,” Piercey told reporters, stressing that her team had not found that the doses were intentionally thrown out. “It is our largest population center. It is also one of our centers of color, as far as disadvantaged and minority communities, but the people deserve to have good access to vaccines.”

As a result, Shelby County’s local health department will no longer be allowed to allocate the vaccine - a rare move by the state that has stressed the importance of local involvement in the vaccine rollout. Instead, Memphis city officials, hospitals, clinics and other pharmacies throughout the county will handle the distribution. Meanwhile, the physical management of the vaccine will now be handled by hospital partners.

Piercey said she was still unsure how the county built up nearly 30,000 excessive vaccine doses in their inventory. She told reporters that the county had originally blamed the problem on a lag in reporting, but she deferred specific questions to the local health department.

However, the state did discover that Shelby County Health Department employees had no access to their pharmacy. Only the pharmacist, who is a contract worker, could access that area that held the vaccines.

Piercey added that the 2,400 wasted doses occurred over seven incidents. Roughly two-thirds of that amount occurred before last week’s storms, which caused several states to face delays in giving out vaccinations.

“We have to make sure no more vaccine expires,” she said.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris announced that he had fired the site manager who was in charge of the relationship with the contract pharmacist.

“Although the pharmacist is not an employee of Shelby County government, we have also asked for the pharmacist to be removed,” Harris said in a statement. “Finally, we have launched an internal investigation, in addition to the state review that has already opened.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11.2% of Tennessee’s overall population has received a single dose of the vaccine and 5.4% has received a second dose.

Currently, Tennessee ranks next to last among states in terms of the percentage of population with at least one dose. Only Utah has given out fewer doses, according to the CDC. Piercey partly blamed the state’s low number on Shelby County’s struggle to distribute the shots.

Separately, earlier this month, officials in Knox County announced that 975 doses had been accidentally thrown away by someone who thought they were throwing out dry ice. The state has also launched an investigation into that incident.

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