A hospital employee outside Milwaukee deliberately spoiled more than 500 doses of coronavirus vaccine by removing 57 vials from a pharmacy refrigerator, hospital officials announced Wednesday, as local police said they were investigating the incident with the help of federal authorities.
Initiating an internal review on Monday, hospital officials said they were initially “led to believe” the incident was caused by “inadvertent human error.” The vials were removed Friday and most were discarded Saturday, with only a few still safe to administer, according to an earlier statement from the health system. Each vial has enough for 10 vaccinations but can sit at room temperature for only 12 hours.
Two days later, the employee acknowledged having “intentionally removed the vaccine from refrigeration,” the hospital, Aurora Medical Center in Grafton, Wis., said in a statement late Wednesday.
The employee, who has not been identified, was fired, the hospital said. Its statement did not address the worker’s motives but said “appropriate authorities” were promptly notified.
Wednesday night, police in Grafton, a village of about 12,000 that lies 20 miles north of Milwaukee, said they were investigating along with the FBI and the Food and Drug Administration. In a statement, the local police department said it had learned of the incident from security services at Aurora Health Care’s corporate office in Milwaukee. The system serves eastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, and includes 15 hospitals and more than 150 clinics.
Leonard Peace, an FBI spokesman in Milwaukee, would not comment on the Bureau’s involvement but said of the episode, “We’re aware of it.” The FDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The tampering will delay inoculation for hundreds of people, Aurora Health officials said, in a state where 3,170 new cases were reported and 40 people died Wednesday of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to The Washington Post’s coronavirus tracker.
“We are more than disappointed that this individual’s actions will result in a delay of more than 500 people receiving the vaccine,” the health system said in a statement.
The Wisconsin incident comes as states continue to grapple with a bumpy rollout of the first doses of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, which were approved less than a month ago and prioritized for health-care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities. So far, distribution has lagged well behind federal projections, raising doubts about whether the outgoing administration will meet its already revised goal of 20 million vaccines distributed by the end of the year.
As of Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 12.4 million doses of the vaccine had been distributed across the United States, but only 2.6 million of those had been administered. (This means that just 1 in 125 Americans has received the first dose of the vaccine.) Trump administration officials have said these numbers lag behind the actual pace of vaccination, which they also vowed would accelerate starting next week.
The Moderna and Pfier-BioNTech vaccines, the first two regimens to gain regulatory approval for emergency use, are two-shot protocols with intricate logistical requirements. Moderna’s vaccine doesn’t require subarctic temperatures, as does the Pfizer product, but it does need to be kept cold. It can be stored at freezer temperatures for six months, the company says, and kept at regular refrigerated conditions for 30 days. It can be maintained at room temperature for only 12 hours, though, and can’t be refrozen once thawed.
Complex storage requirements are among the reasons state officials are imploring providers to administer vaccine quickly once it is received.
In its original statement, Aurora Health said it had successfully vaccinated about 17,000 people over the previous 12 days. Its initial review, it said, had found that the 57 vials were simply not returned to the refrigerator after “temporarily being removed to access other items.”
The hospital apologized, saying, “We are clearly disappointed and regret this happened.”
It is not clear what motive the employee may have had to spoil the vaccine doses. The hospital said it would release more details about its investigation Thursday.