Vaccines go to waste as states scramble for guidance

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Experts say many vaccination sites have not received sufficient support from state, local, and federal governments.

State and local jurisdictions are reported to have let thousands of vaccine doses go to waste due to inadequate storage and record-keeping, even as vaccine shortfalls and shipping delays have threatened the ability of Americans to be inoculated against the coronavirus.

A weekend probe by the Tennessee Department of Health found that more than 2,400 doses went to waste in the past month in densely populated Shelby County, which includes the city of Memphis. County officials thought they had been administered to residents.

According to the state's Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, the doses were wasted in part due to a lack of standardized protocols for storage and handling, as well as to poor record-keeping processes.

In North Carolina, some 2,300 doses were reported to have been allowed by 100 different vaccine providers to expire as of Feb. 18. An ABC affiliate in Raleigh-Durham reported that the waste was caused by shipping and storage issues, errors by those handling and administering the vaccines, and a lack of patients to receive them before they expired.

In Maryland, reported the Baltimore Sun, more than 1,700 doses of the COVID vaccine have spoiled since December, close to 1% of the doses allocated to the state by the federal government. Nearly 1,500 of these were due to a refrigerator malfunction. The process requires careful handling of dry ice, temperature monitoring, and meticulous record-keeping.

Providers must also be vigilant about administering vaccines swiftly after thawing. According to Moderna's vaccine website, vaccines spoil 12 hours after they're thawed, and the vials cannot be refrozen.

According to the Baltimore Sun report, Maryland's guidelines indicate that the state allows individual health departments to determine their own storage protocols to best ensure minimal waste.

Experts have noted that the fault does not lie exclusively with the vaccine providers, since many vaccination sites have not received sufficient support from state, local, and federal governments, or were not properly equipped to handle the intricate procedures needed to store the delicate doses.

Epidemiologist Brian Castrucci told the Baltimore Sun, "We knew while the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were being developed that they’d need to be at extremely low temperatures. And we knew we didn't have the capability to do that. The fridge infrastructure isn't there, and we knew this. What were we doing while these vaccines were going through these trials?"

This waste of vaccine doses comes at a time when vaccine shortages have been reported in many states. Critics have blamed Donald Trump's administration for a failure to order sufficient quantities of vaccines and for pressuring states to vaccinate all individuals over 65 when the vaccine supply was inadequate to meet demand.

The've also slammed the administration for leaving vaccine administration almost exclusively to the states — with inadequate federal assistance.

"It doesn't happen by fairy dust," Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, a group focused on transforming health care through scientific research, told U.S. News and World Report. "You need to put funds into that."

As of February, U.S. News noted, only 2.4 million Americans had received both doses of the vaccine. This number is a fraction of the 50% to 90% of the 328 million Americans that need to have been vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

Amid vaccine shortfalls, states have also struggled to find vaccinators. Administering the vaccine requires special training, and in a February briefing, Jeff Zients, White House COVID-19 task force coordinator, said, "We need to mobilize more medical units to get more shots in people's arms."

Severe winter storms have also delayed the shipment of some 6 million vaccines nationwide, particularly in the Midwest and Texas.

Still, some say hope is on the horizon: The number of weekly vaccine shipments is increasing under the Biden administration.

But experts note that increased supply does not resolve the shortfall if vaccine providers don't take special care to preserve the doses.

Eric Toner of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security said, "There's real restrictions on which facilities can handle the Pfizer. Not only the cold handling, but also the way it's packaged."

He added that providers should keep a list of individuals looking to be vaccinated, regardless of eligibility — a backup plan if they end up with vaccines that might otherwise go to waste.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.