Local health networks waste COVID vaccine doses at lower rates than Pa. as a whole

The Lehigh Valley’s two major health networks wasted coronavirus vaccines at a rate lower than the statewide spoilage rate.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration spent months refusing to release details about wasted coronavirus vaccine doses, citing a decades-old disease prevention law. The state reversed course this month and made public how many doses have been discarded by providers and why.

Just 0.19% of the more than 10 million doses given to hospitals, pharmacies and other providers statewide through May 21 had to be tossed without being used, Department of Health spokesman Mark O’Neill said. The health department plans to update the dataset on a weekly basis now, he said.

“Vaccine can be discarded for a number of reasons, including vials broken in handling and syringe issues, such as bent or broken needles or clients refusing after the vaccine dose was drawn,” he said. “The department actively follows up with providers reporting discarded doses to help ensure that as many Pennsylvanians as possible receive the vaccine.”

On Thursday, the state reached the milestone of 70% of adults with at least one vaccine dose.

The state dataset is not currently reflecting all Lehigh Valley vaccine providers. For example, the Bethlehem Health Bureau is missing, but the region’s two health networks offered up their internal data.

Lehigh Valley Health Network’s wasted .04% of the almost 370,000 vaccinations it’s administered through all of its hospital sites and clinics, including drive-through operations, spokesman Brian Downs said. This amounts to a total of 159 doses that were unable to be given at the end of the day, slightly more than double the 75 doses reported in the current state data.

“The vaccination staff went above and beyond attempting to locate people who wanted the vaccine at the end of each day when a few doses might be available because vials were opened to accommodate those who were present to receive their shot,” Downs said.

Statewide 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 like equipment failure, state health officials said.

At LVHN, 28 doses were wasted due to a broke vial or syringe, one drawn but not given, one “other” and 45 open vials were not administered, according to the available state data.

Across all of its campuses, St. Luke’s University Health Network reported 542 wasted doses out of 329,271 administered, a spoilage rate of .16%. Out of those, 437 were discarded in Northampton and Lehigh counties, per state data.

St. Luke’s confirmed the accuracy of the state data, but offered up some of the reasons the network’s doses went unused.

It scrapped 73 Johnson & Johnson syringes, ready to go into arms, the day the Food and Drug Administration announced a pause of the single-dose shots amid a safety review, explained said Kate Raymond, director of marketing and public relations.

Ten Moderna doses showed visible contamination on the manufacturer’s vial, she said. Sometimes providers are unable to pull the full amount of doses — six for a Pfizer bottle and 10 for Moderna — from a vial. Both of the two-dose shots come in multi-dose vials, have limited shelf lives and are fragile.

“The vast majority of unused vaccine is due to no shows, which have increased dramatically since mid-April,” Raymond said.

State data supports this: 214 St. Luke’s wasted doses were from open vials that could not be fully administered, and 83 were drawn into a syringe but not given. Thirty-nine could not be used due to a broken vial or syringe. Another 206 are listed as wasted for other reasons.

“We have made it a priority to ensure that we account for all doses that we receive,” said Leslie Johnson, St. Luke’s pharmacy clinical coordinator. “As such we document all in PA-SIIS, the state inventory system. And we do weekly checks to reconcile all documentation and inventory. I don’t know that all sites do this.”

Tracking wasted doses helps to identify where issues are occurring or demand is lagging and allows for course corrections, health experts say.

(Can’t see this chart? Click here.)

An independent pharmacy in Luzerne County spoiled the most doses in the state — 1,130 — latest data shows. 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.

By the time he got more than 1,100 Pfizer doses in May, demand had dropped significantly. The pharmacy’s administered about 200 doses. He’s stopped ordering doses and Patel suggested that sending smaller quantities could help sites seeing less demand.

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 spokesman.

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.

Another 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.

The release of the data comes two months after the state 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 past year to withhold all kinds of information.

Like the wasted vaccines, state health officials 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.

Spotlight PA contributed to this report. It is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media.

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Sara K. Satullo may be reached at [email protected].

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