MADISON, Wis. — Major vaccine storage hubs in Madison say they’re reviewing their security protocols in the wake of a pharmacist arrested Thursday after more than 500 vaccine doses were deliberately spoiled at Aurora Medical Center in Grafton. The FBI is involved in the investigation, officials said Wednesday.
Facing potential charges of recklessly endangering safety, altering a prescription drug, and criminal damage to property, the now-fired employee told investigators he’d deliberately left the doses outside of the refrigerator. The Phizer vaccine can be kept at room temperature for up to six hours, while the Moderna vaccine lasts twelve. 57 people were reported to have received the spoiled vaccines, according to Aurora; Moderna said the spoiled vaccines were not dangerous but effectively useless for vaccination.
The news is being watched closely by regional health providers, who say vaccine security has always been a priority but that incidents like this prompt an inevitable second-look at existing protocols.
“It certainly puts pressure on us to make sure that we revisit our protocols and make sure one more time that all vaccines are stored safely and securely until it’s time to get them out and send them to a vaccination site,” said Mohammad (Mo) Kharbat, regional vice president of pharmacy services for SSM Health-Wisconsin. “No doubt when something like this happens, it makes us think twice again about our process.”
That process at SSM Health’s St Mary’s Hospital and UW Health in Madison, both regional storage hubs for the vaccine in Wisconsin, includes locked freezers and storage areas as well as 24/7 surveillance of the freezers. Only a small number of authorized people–pharmacy employees, in the case of SSM Health–have access to the doses in storage.
“We thought of this more as an armored truck full of gold rather than glass vials full of clear liquid,” Dr. Jeff Pothof, UW Health’s chief quality officer, said of the security plans set in motion long before vaccines were approved or arrived in the state. “This vaccine is incredibly precious.”
UW Health is asking those questions about possible security loopholes and monitoring the incident in Aurora closely, he said. The process of securing the vaccine is about more than just the storage of the doses; it includes process that ensure every dose that leaves the freezer is used–even if its intended recipient may not show up or come through. Those process require constant reevaluating.
“We say, ‘You know what, could that happen here? And if it could happen here, is there anything more we can do to make sure it doesn’t happen here?’”
A key part of vaccine security is fairly straightforward: use them, rather than keeping them on hand. While UW Health could store 250,000 vaccine doses–far more than what the entire state is receiving weekly–the number on hand is supposed to stay low. As of December 29, just over 47,000 doses had been administered in Wisconsin of the 265,575 allocated and 156,875 shipped.
The goal is to keep as few in the freezer as possible, getting them instead into people’s arms.
“We don’t have a ton sitting around at any given point in time,” Kharbat with SSM Health said. “We want to make sure that every dose goes to a health care worker or in the future to an essential worker so someone can be protected.”
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