State Health Dept.: Early data shows vaccines ‘kept in temperature’

No indication that less effective doses were delivered

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 09, 2021 9:39 PM CT | Published: March 09, 2021 2:11 PM CT

While the data is trickling in, much of what the state Health Department has recovered so far shows the cold chain was maintained for vaccines while in the custody of the Shelby County Health Department.

“I’m just still waiting on additional data,” Tennessee Commissioner of Health Dr. Lisa Piercey, said of the state’s investigation. “We’re not at a point yet where we can say yea or nay. I am very encouraged that what we have found does indicate that temperatures were being measured and were being tracked. The process for keeping and producing these records has been a little bit less than ideal.


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“But from what we have found so far, it looks like for the data we have, the vaccines were kept in temperature, which gives us no that indication that they weren’t fully effective doses,” Piercey said in a media briefing Tuesday, March 9.

On Friday, Feb. 26, Piercey outlined a litany of what appeared to be lax practices within the Shelby County Health Department, including 2,400 doses that were allowed to expire in seven instances, issues maintaining cold chain records and overall shoddy record-keeping.

Piercey said then it appeared the “vast majority” of the temperature data had not been preserved.

All three of the currently approved vaccines for COVID-19 must be kept at specific temperatures from the time they leave the manufacturer until they are injected. The boxes they are shipped in include temperature trackers. At any time in the process, the temperature in transit and storage can be ascertained.

While the investigation was taking more time than she expected, Piercey said Tuesday the information she was getting was better than expected.

“That’s encouraging. It’s frustrating for everybody to have to postpone things, or drag this on any longer than it has to be, but we want to make sure we get every piece of information that is available,” she said.

The state is now investigating the integrity of the cold chain from the time the local health department started administering doses here in late December until late February when the City of Memphis took custody of the vaccine.

“If we’re going to make an effort as large and public as we’ve made, we’re going to check everything,” Piercey said. “...We are checking to make sure we can ensure temperature stability for every single date that vaccine has been administered because we understand that the public has some questions about that.

“I’m looking at every dose, and every date range in the entire vaccine effort.”

The Shelby County Health Department had no comment.

In a panel discussion on Monday that U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen convened on Zoom, Dr. Jeff Warren, City Council member and member of the Memphis-Shelby County COVID-19 Task Force, said the investigation found few if any of the doses had been improperly stored.


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Dr. James E. K. Hildreth, infectious disease expert and president of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, was also a member of the panel. 

“The concern is not whether a vaccine has gone bad would do harm to a person, it’s whether or not they would think that they’re protected when in fact they were not because the vaccine was actually no good,” Hildreth said.

Initially, Piercey suspected the information hadn’t been kept or simply didn’t exist “because it wasn’t measured or recorded,” she said.

“We have learned over the last couple of weeks, that in many instances that information does exist,” she said, but getting it is complicated because staff who kept the data no longer work for the Health Department or are doing different things.

“We’ve been able to get information from them on where those data logs were stored. We’ve been able to find some, and we’ve been able to surface some of those, and putting the pieces together to ensure what we call cold chain stability or making sure the temperature is stable, all the way from the beginning to the end.”

As soon as the work is finished, Piercey said she will be back to say she is confident vaccines were stored at the right temperature, or if there were instances she is not confident about.

She could not say why employees were no longer working in the department.

County Mayor Lee Harris’ office did not immediately respond.

The state health department opened up vaccines to category 1c Monday, which includes tens of thousands of people 16 and older with underlying health conditions, including people with a Body Mass Index of 30 or more.

The state initially said this group was 1.1 million people. It now expects it to be 1.5 million because it has added people diagnosed with diabetes but not taking medication for it, plus people with progressive progressive neuromuscular diseases such as ALS, multiple sclerosis or muscular dystrophy. It has also added pregnant women to the category and members of their households.

The updated state vaccination plan is available here.

Piercey stressed obesity and diabetes Tuesday, saying that new COVID research shows people with these conditions are at an elevated risk for hospitalization, even death, than others.

“So, we’re really starting to see the science emerge to really emphasize the need of vaccination in those with obesity and diabetes,” she said.

Because these and other underlying conditions affect 30% to 40% of Tennesseans, its means thousands of essential workers, scheduled to be inoculated later, are now eligible based on their underlying conditions.

In conversations with employers, Piercey said she is frequently asked when a specific category of worker will be able to be vaccinated.

“I will always remind them, ‘Hey, we’re in 1c now, which means if your workforce is in Tennessee, probably 30% or 40% of your workforce qualifies now,” she said.

“You don’t have to wait until your phase comes up if you qualify sooner. ... In summary, regardless of employer, regardless of employment status, whether you’re employed or not, regardless of living setting, what kind of setting you live in, if you are eligible in 1c, you don’t have to wait to that future phase or that further phase.”

Under 1c, inmates with underlying conditions qualify. So would college students, she said.

The Department of Corrections was provided both Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccine last week, so people who are incarcerated have a choice, Piercey said. 

Residents of Tennessee can find vaccination providers in their area at VaccineFinder.org. The site allows one to search by ZIP code or the vaccine brand. They may also book an appointment for COVID-19 vaccination through county health departments at COVID19.tn.gov.

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Topics

Dr. Lisa Piercey COVID 19 vaccines Shelby County Health Department
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers healthcare and higher education for The Daily Memphian.


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