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NPR Coronavirus Updates

Accidentally Trashed, Thawed Or Expired: Reports Of COVID-19 Vaccine 'Spoilage' Grow

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As the speed of COVID vaccinations picks up, so do the reports of doses going to waste. And it's more than just a handful here and there. We are talking 300 doses in Lee County, N.C., 1,000 doses in Palm Beach and, in Tennessee, nearly 5,000 doses have gone to waste in the last month. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville looked into it.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Most clinics are experienced at giving vaccines, but not ones that are so precious and so sensitive to temperature.

BETH ANN WILMORE: I definitely have been losing some sleep over this, for sure.

FARMER: Beth Ann Wilmore manages the COVID vaccine inventory at a community health center in Franklin, Tenn. Nonprofit clinics in the state started receiving shipments a month ago.

WILMORE: I was definitely waking up in the middle of the night wondering how the temperatures were doing (laughter) and thinking, OK, I hope it's good.

FARMER: She knows the horror stories. One from a county over happened just a week ago. The local school district received a thousand doses for a teacher vaccination event, but they were put in an unapproved freezer. The temperature sensor on the shipment gave an error code, and out of caution, they were advised to throw them all away.

LISA PIERCEY: It hurts my heart.

FARMER: Dr. Lisa Piercey is the health commissioner in Tennessee, which has seen one of the country's biggest spikes in reported spoilage. But it's one of the risks in having so many places to get the vaccine. As a way to increase access, there are now more than 700 sites across the state.

PIERCEY: It definitely raises the level of concern when you have more partners, particularly partners that aren't under your direct control.

FARMER: In Knoxville, a thousand doses were thrown out, apparently confused for a shipment of dry ice. In Memphis, the county was slow to disclose that nearly 2,500 doses were allowed to expire on several occasions. The local health director resigned. The state has stepped up audits and called in staff from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor.

There are so many opportunities for doses to go bad. In Florida, workers turned the power off to a fridge. In Connecticut, a fridge door just didn't close. And Dr. Kelly Moore of the Immunization Action Coalition says a little spoilage is expected.

KELLY MOORE: I would be more worried if I saw reports of zero doses wasted.

FARMER: Transparency is the real concern.

MOORE: You want to see some waste because that means people are paying attention and that real-world accidents happen and that they're being responded to properly. You just don't want to see negligence.

FARMER: Reports of spoiled doses still come to far less than 1% of the total, even in states with big losses. There is hope that mishaps will be easier to avoid with the newly authorized Johnson & Johnson vaccine. It can last in a normal refrigerator for months.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

KELLY: And this story was produced in partnership with NPR, Kaiser Health News and Nashville Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.