Shelby County Health Department’s vaccine debacle part of longer list of inconsistencies in dealing with public

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — When Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter spoke last Friday about 1,300 vaccine doses they let expire, she cited the winter storm.

“You’re all aware we’ve had to close sites the last week because of weather conditions,” she said.

But the Tennessee Department of Health’s investigation yielded more concerning results.

“We believe the majority of this wastage was not weather related. It was six different expiration events that occurred between February 3 and February 12,” Dr. Lisa Piercey said.

State officials said the county actually had to throw away a lot more than Haushalter said due to mismanagement: around 2,400 doses. And they reported Shelby County had an excess of 30,000 doses in storage.

Those are just some of the inconsistencies since January regarding vaccine distribution in Shelby County.

From the beginning, the Health Department told people to bring proof of eligibility to vaccine appointments but never followed through on confirming eligibility when people showed up, leading to questions about whether the most vulnerable people really were getting the vaccine.

“They had my license with me in case they checked that. They did not ask for that,” said a clinical psychologist who got the vaccine at the Pipkin Building in January.

And when WREG asked three weeks ago why Shelby County was vaccinating at a rate lower than almost any other in the state, officials attributed a “lag in reporting.”

“The waste that occurred and that we’re behind getting out the doses by 30,000, it explains a lot of the backlog,” Commissioner Mick Wright said Wednesday.

In a virtual briefing Wednesday, Shelby County leaders tried to take accountability.

“We certainly regret deeply for this event that has taken place,” Dr. Bruce Randolph said.

They said two associated employees have left the department. But County Commissioner Mick Wright doesn’t know if that’s enough.

“I want to say the public can trust the county but I think we’re going to have to level with the public,” he said.

People getting their vaccine Wednesday welcomed the change in direction. WREG spoke with a woman who was getting her second vaccine and noted the change from when the site was run by the County Health Department to the current operator, the City of Memphis.

“Gratefully, somebody thought to take it out of their hands because this was 100 percent better than when we came here before!” she said.

Regarding a potential leadership change at the Health Department, Wright called it a “last resort” and said he wanted the county to focus on fixing the vaccine problems first.

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