The Shelby County Health Department director resigned Friday, effective March 31, following allegations by the Tennessee Department of Health of COVID-19 vaccine mismanagement – including a volunteer accused of stealing doses and the improper vaccination of children – all amid a week of staggering revelations that began with the disclosure of thousands of wasted doses.
At a press conference Friday evening, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said that Haushalter’s last day “in-office” would be March 15, and that he would announce an interim director by the end of next week. (Update, March 9: Harris has named Dr. LaSonya Harris Hall as interim Director of the Shelby County Health Department.) MLK50: Justice Through Journalism obtained a copy of an email Haushalter sent to her staff announcing her resignation.
The new details emerged the morning after state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey and Haushalter appeared at a town hall sponsored by Women United and United Way of the Mid-South, and moderated by MLK50 editor Wendi C. Thomas. The event was intended to help Memphians understand the available vaccines and discuss their development, safety and efficacy, but Piercey and Haushalter also addressed questions about distribution and allocation.
At a press conference Friday morning, Piercey also clarified the wasted dosage timeline. The first thousand or so doses were discarded Feb. 3, more than two weeks before the county revealed the expirations on Feb. 19. Doses were wasted seven times over the following three weeks, including on Wednesday, for a total of about 2,500 doses.
Piercey also revealed that two children had been inappropriately vaccinated at the Appling site. She had no details on who the children were or if the children’s parents were being contacted by the state. The Pfizer vaccine is authorized for people age 16 and older; the Moderna vaccine is only authorized for adults.
At the Pipkin site, a volunteer allegedly stole 18 doses already in syringes. A representative for the county health department said in a statement Friday there were no witnesses, but other staff were suspicious. The department removed the volunteer, who is a medical professional, and contacted law enforcement, “who concluded that there was insufficient information to file a report of any theft or unlawful conduct.”
Both the vaccination of children and the stolen doses also occurred on Feb. 3, the day of the first major wastage. Piercey said the FBI is investigating the stolen doses.
While Piercey praised the City of Memphis, which has taken over vaccine distribution from the county, she called the county health department a “low accountability organization,” and appeared to suggest director Haushalter is ultimately at fault for the debacle.
“At the end of the day, the leader is accountable for making sure what he or she is hearing or being told is accurate and complete. That appears to be the main issue at hand here,” she said. “Not only was the leadership there being told everything’s OK, we don’t have any evidence that they actually verified that for themselves. We don’t see any process for accountability or confirmation there.”
The state health department had previously confirmed that about 2,400 doses had been wasted and around 30,000 doses were being inappropriately stockpiled for teacher vaccinations.
Haushalter initially said nearly 1,100 fewer doses had expired. She said on Wednesday nearly 30,000 doses were stockpiled for teacher use. The state health department later said saving those extra doses was another “significant violation” and was inappropriate given the number of still unvaccinated people in higher tiers.
Frank talk at the forum
When asked about the various rollout failures at the town hall Thursday night – including lack of equitability in signing up for appointments as well as the expired and stockpiled doses – Haushalter compared the vaccine rollout to “building a ship at sea during a storm.”
“There are along the way, unfortunately, errors that get made and lessons learned. As a leader my responsibility is first and foremost to identify those errors, elevate those in a transparent way and work with others to correct them so that we can better serve this community.”
Thomas asked whether her continued position as director might be a distraction. In response, Haushalter said that was a conversation between herself and the mayor, but added, “I’m committed to this community, committed to correcting any of the errors that occur along the way or any of the items that get in the way of access for all.”
As the conversation moved to vaccine safety, panelists spoke about the importance of vaccination and helped explain the science behind the shots. The vaccine is safe, the president of Bluff City Medical Society, Dr. LaTonya B. Washington, said emphatically. Washington, who also sits on the Memphis and Shelby County Joint COVID-19 Taskforce, said local health officials need to “lead by example,” and said chronicling her own vaccination experience helped others be more comfortable.
“Did I have some questions? Absolutely,” Washington said, recounting when she initially heard vaccines would be approved. But once she looked at the data herself and saw how much the vaccines reduced hospitalizations and deaths, “I said, ‘Oh sign me up. I certainly will be at the front of the line,’” she said.
Dispelling myths, explaining lags
Washington and Walgreens pharmacist Dr. Nathaniel Boutte also worked to dispel many common vaccine myths. The vaccines do not alter your DNA, said Washington, nor do any of the current vaccines have any live virus. They also do not affect your fertility, she said, noting she’s a woman of childbearing age who’s received the vaccine. She added that pregnant women had not been included in vaccine trials, but said anecdotally, many of her pregnant colleagues have been vaccinated.
And the vaccines don’t have anything extra injected in them, including 5G chips, added Boutte. Common phrases like “new technology” and “nanoparticle” are confusing people, he said. Yes, it’s new technology, but “nanoparticle is simply a measure of size,” much like “a gallon of milk.”
But hesitancy isn’t unreasonable, said the Rev. Keith Norman, senior pastor at First Baptist Church – Broad who also serves as vice president of government affairs for Baptist Memorial Health Care Corporation.
“Oftentimes we’ve rushed past the reality of why people had hesitancy, and to address those realities and to affirm their reality is important,” Norman said.
“None of us probably started out 100% ready to take a vaccine. We have moved gradually, as we have in our faith.”
To help explain the history and science behind the vaccines, the panel turned to Dr. Barney Graham, deputy director of the National Institutes of Health Vaccine Research Center. Graham, whose laboratory helped develop the technology used in the two currently approved vaccines, said the development appeared to be much faster than it was. In fact, scientists had been working on mRNA vaccines – the type of vaccine used by Pfizer and Moderna – for over a decade, and had already proved their efficacy against other coronaviruses by the time COVID-19 emerged as a threat.
Meanwhile, Piercey tried to explain why Tennessee lags so far in vaccine distribution. “Part of it is a product of our own early success,” she said, noting early in the rollout Tennessee was a national leader. But she also overstated Tennessee’s distribution of second doses, claiming the state was in the top 20. Recent vaccination trackers list Tennessee near the bottom in both first and second doses.
Piercey also added there’s a “well-known tradeoff in equity and speed,” adding that getting vaccines to vulnerable populations slows down distribution. Tennessee’s vaccination plan states that equity remains a cross-cutting consideration. The state sets aside 5% of its weekly vaccine allocation for counties, including Shelby, that rank high on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social vulnerability index, which includes race as one of 15 factors. But Tennessee’s plan also called for vaccinating people over 75 first, despite the fact that Black people have lower life expectancies than white people.
Shelby County’s vaccine rollout has been rocky, marred by logistical failures from the start. The county first grappled with internet access and equitability, releasing hundreds of vaccine appointments online that were filled before phone lines ever opened.
Haushalter also apologized for opening additional slots at the Pipkin Building site in January without adequately planning for the demand. Many people – including those with appointments – waited in their cars for hours only to be turned away.
As of Friday, more than 87,000 people have tested positive or were assumed positive with COVID-19 in Shelby County, and 1,484 people have died. Over the past few weeks, cases and hospitalizations have been decreasing after a post-holiday surge, health officials have said.
Hannah Grabenstein is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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