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From the archives 2021

After citing privacy law, Pa. backtracks and discloses wasted vaccine details

by Jamie Martines of Spotlight PA |

One provider who reported a high number of spoiled doses cited a late shipment from the state and a lack of demand.
Fred Adams / Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — After refusing to release details about wasted coronavirus vaccine, citing a decades-old disease prevention law, the Wolf administration has reversed course and made public how many doses have been discarded by providers and why.

The data show just 0.18% of more than 10 million doses given to hospitals, pharmacies, and other providers through May 21 were not used.

Of the 18,644 discarded doses, providers reported spoilage as the cause in more than 37% of cases. Spoiled vaccines typically include those that have expired or those that were not stored at the correct temperature due to conditions such as equipment failure, state health officials said.

According to the new data, a state prison in Schuylkill County spoiled the most doses — 2,695 — out of the 624 providers listed. But when contacted by Spotlight PA, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said there had not been any spoilage at the facility, SCI-Mahanoy.

The information was submitted prematurely and the Corrections Department is working to amend the state Health Department’s report, said the spokesperson, Maria Bivens.

The confusion stems from an April 5 issue with a backup generator, causing a refrigerator storing vaccines to lose power for several hours, Bivens said. A report was submitted to the Health Department; however, Johnson & Johnson, the vaccine manufacturer, reviewed the incident and determined that the vaccines were viable.

Valley Pharmacy, an independent pharmacy in Luzerne County, spoiled 1,130 doses, the second-highest number listed in the report.

Owner Sandip Patel said he had been asking the state for doses since February when demand was high and many of the pharmacy’s customers were eager to get the vaccine.

But the pharmacy didn’t receive its first shipment of vaccines until May 2, he said.

Since then, the pharmacy has administered what it could — about 200 doses — but hasn’t had enough demand to administer the more than 1,100 Pfizer doses it received, Patel said.

The pharmacy wasn’t penalized for spoiling the vaccines, but Patel said he has stopped ordering them. Sending it in smaller quantities might make it more manageable for sites experiencing decreased demand, he said.

“Most of the people already had either received the vaccine or didn’t need it anymore, or they refused it,” he said.

The release of the data comes two months after the Department of Health initially denied Spotlight PA’s public records request for the information, citing a 1955 law the Wolf administration has used throughout the pandemic to obscure the finer details of its response.

The Disease Prevention and Control Law gives the state wide authority to keep information related to contagious diseases, including details that could identify individuals, confidential. But it has been used more broadly over the last year to withhold all kinds of information.

State health officials also initially cited the law in refusing to release the number of COVID-19 tests the state was conducting and the number of cases in specific nursing homes. After criticism, the Wolf administration reversed course in both instances.

On its website, the Department of Health reported 6,731 doses were wasted for reasons listed as “other,” and 4,002 doses were wasted because a vial was opened but not administered.

The rest were wasted because of a broken vial or syringe (686 doses), a vaccine was drawn but not administered (263), or doses were lost or unaccounted for (13). Wasted doses differ from spoiled ones because they come from an open vial.

Among the providers that have wasted or spoiled the most doses: the Allegheny County Health Department. It spoiled 636 Pfizer doses allocated to county vaccination sites over three separate days — April 21, April 24, and May 9 — after officials started to thaw vaccines but then experienced a “sudden and unexpected drop in filled appointments,” said Chris Togneri, department spokesperson.

That drop coincided with expanding vaccine eligibility to all Pennsylvania residents 16 and older.

“Over a three-week period, our vaccination appointments went from 100% full to 50% full to 25% full,” Togneri said.

An additional 309 vaccines were wasted after vials were opened but doses were not administered or after various issues like faulty syringes, contaminated needles, or other human error, Togneri said.

Since the start of the vaccine rollout, the Allegheny County Health Department has held about 400 vaccine events and administered more than 129,000 doses, Togneri said.

Mercer County’s Grove City Hospital, which is operated by Allegheny Health Network, spoiled 304 vaccines early in the vaccine rollout, said Dan Laurent, AHN vice president for corporate communications.

“As many providers were getting acclimated to the unique protocols for prepping and distributing Pfizer doses, we made a calculated decision to err on the side of caution with regard to a specific weekend clinic at Grove City, where the timing of thawing to expiration of some vaccine doses made it uncertain if it was safe to administer them,” Laurent said, adding that protocols have been established to prevent future spoilage.

The health system has administered about 370,000 vaccine doses throughout western Pennsylvania and more than 23,100 in Mercer County through Grove City Hospital, he said.

Central Outreach Wellness Center in Allegheny County and ACMH Hospital in Armstrong County also reported a high number of wasted or spoiled doses. Neither responded to request for comment.

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