A hospital Covid-19 vaccination team shows up at the emergency room to inoculate employees who haven’t received their shots.
Finding just a few, the team is about to leave when an ER doctor suggests they give the remaining doses to vulnerable patients or nonhospital employees. The team refuses, saying that would violate hospital policy and state guidelines.
Incensed, the doctor works his way up the hospital chain of command until he finds an administrator who gives the OK for the team to use up the rest of the doses.
But by the time the doctor tracks down the medical team, its shift is over and, following protocol, whatever doses remained are now in the garbage.
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Isolated incident? Not a chance, Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told NBC News.
“This kind of thing is pretty rampant,” Jha said. “I have personally heard stories like this from dozens of physician friends in a variety of different states. Hundreds, if not thousands, of doses are getting tossed across the country every day. It’s unbelievable.”
Jha said the ER doctor whose story he laid out in a Twitter thread this week asked to not be identified, but his story, seen by thousands of people, resonated with other medical professionals frustrated by rules and regulations that they say are making it harder to get more Americans vaccinated.
Why is this happening? Covid-19 vaccines have a short shelf life once they are thawed out for use, Jha said. And because of federal and state mandates, hospitals and other health care providers would rather risk a dose going bad than give it to somebody who isn't scheduled to get a shot.
At the same time, states like Massachusetts now have rules requiring hospitals to report the number of vaccine doses that have been discarded, Jha said.
“The problem is that hospitals that do report this get pilloried in the press for wasting vaccines,” Jha said. “So, many hospitals are not reporting and this is happening across the country.”
While there doesn’t appear to be any solid numbers yet of how many of the Covid-19 vaccines have been discarded in the United States since the rollout began last month, the World Health Organization warned in 2005 that up to 50 percent of the vaccines released globally each year end up in the dumpster because of supply chain problems, such as not having enough freezer space or transportation issues.
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Some of those same problem have dogged the Trump administration’s efforts to roll out the Covid-19 vaccines.
“I hope (and pray) it is not as high as 50 percent, given the thousands of people that are dying every day,” said Dr. Sadiya Khan, an epidemiologist at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “While it is an inevitable reality that a proportion of doses may be wasted, it will take careful planning and oversight to minimize waste.”
Infectious disease expert Dr. John Swartzberg agreed.
“I have not seen any data about how much vaccine has been wasted (besides what I read in the newspapers),” said Swartzberg, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health. “Given how needed it is, I hope the WHO data is incorrect.”
For Sue Joss, the CEO of the Brockton Neighborhood Health Center in Brockton, Massachusetts, one wasted dose of Covid-19 vaccine is one too many.
It was Christmas Eve, she said, and a staffer scheduled to receive that last remaining shot of the 60 Moderna vaccines that had been removed from cold storage that day did not show up.
“We can’t let this happen again,” Joss recalled saying before the unclaimed dose was trashed.
So, Joss put into place a system to ensure that if somebody fails to show up for an appointment, there is another person ready and waiting to take his or her place. “We now have a waiting list of people who can come in on short notice to get a shot,” she said.
But that’s not foolproof either, Joss added.
“One time last week, we went marching through the halls to find a patient willing to get a shot, so a dose wouldn’t go to waste,” she said.
Similar stories of unused doses landing in the garbage have been reported elsewhere in the country.
Dozens of doses earmarked for two hospitals in Portland, Oregon, were thrown away when officials couldn’t round up enough health care workers to get the shots before the vaccines expired.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo loosened rules designed to ensure that the first shots went to front-line health care workers and retirement home residents – and that less endangered people did not cut in line – following reports that unused vaccines were being thrown away.
And in Ohio, three dozen doses landed in the garbage after a nursing home in Lawrence County overestimated the number of vaccines it needed, forcing the pharmacists administering the shots to search for takers.
“They did everything they could,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said. “They got everyone who would take a shot but they had some leftover, a lot of leftover.”
President Donald Trump, whose erratic leadership during the pandemic helped doom his re-election bid, had vowed that 20 million people in the U.S. would be immunized by the end of 2020.
But as of Thursday, 30.6 million doses of coronavirus vaccine had been distributed with just 11.1 million people receiving their first shots, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccination tracker.
The massive coronavirus vaccine rollout in the U.S. has been hobbled by poor planning, a distribution system that relies largely on state and local governments to make those calls, and by well-meaning attempts at limiting the distribution of the first doses to the most vulnerable populations that have backfired.
Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to lead the world with more than 23 million confirmed Covid-19 cases and nearly 387,000 deaths, according to data compiled by NBC News and Johns Hopkins University.