JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Medical workers at the state vaccination clinic at Regency Square faced a problem Thursday afternoon.
It was 5:30 p.m. The site was supposed to be closed. There was no one left in line waiting for their appointment. But they still had unused COVID-19 shots left over.
A worker in scrubs ran out of the old Sears store where they are working to search for someone who hadn’t been vaccinated yet. She told bystanders that they had 20 left and they didn’t want to throw them away. It wasn’t immediately clear how many, if any, went to waste.
UF Health epidemiologist Chad Neilsen told News4Jax it’s a dilemma that medical institutions across the country face. The choice is either vaccinate whoever is available -- even if those people are not in the top priority tier currently qualified -- or wasting precious doses that will spoil if left unused.
“There may be somebody who has to miss their vaccine appointment, because they are in surgery, or they’re otherwise tied up with a patient. So, we will hold their dose for them,” Neilsen said. “If they can’t make it, we literally go ask somebody, ‘Hey, have you had the vaccine yet?’”
Once vaccines are thawed and prepared to administer to crowds of people with appointments, there’s a ticking clock. Once at a certain temperature for a certain amount of time, Neilsen said the vaccine spoils and falls apart internally. It becomes unsafe to give to people.
“There’s been reports across the nation that some hospitals have had wasted vaccines. That they couldn’t find anyone to vaccinate, so they dumped them or something like that. And that’s just not excusable,” Neilsen said. “Planning can fix these issues. If you know about how many people need to get the vaccine that day, you might not want to pull all 1,000 of them out at the same time, you have to stagger it to make sure that as much as possible, you’re not wasting that vaccine.”
Hospitals and medical institutions across Florida are required to track and report how many shots they administer to the Florida Shots program. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says health facilities should report unused and spoiled COVID-19 vaccines.
The Florida Department of Health and Florida Department of Emergency Management has yet to answer whether they are tracking and reporting the number of vaccines that don’t get used at state vaccine sites each day. State health officials also didn’t answer whether the state has developed a waiting list or another method to make sure any surplus of doses at the end of the day get used.
The Duval County Health Department declined to even answer whether or not those 20 shots left when the Regency site closed Thursday were used, referring the question to the Flordia Department of Emergency Management. At the close of business Friday, it had not answered the question about Thursday’s leftover vaccines.
UF Health is still working to vaccinate its workforce and existing patients who have arranged appointments, but Nielsen says in case of missed appointments they have created a waiting list of staff still in need of vaccines.
“We do have sort of a waiting list. If people you know, miss an appointment, for some reason, we can pull from a waiting list and pull other people in,” Neilsen said. “If it’s using it on someone else or wasting it, use it. And we’ve been clear and pretty good about that process here. I’m sure the city and the state are going to do that as well.”
This comes as Gov. Ron DeSantis has already made it clear that only senior citizens and healthcare workers should be eligible to receive the vaccine during the first two phases of the vaccine rollout.
Dr. Michael Koren is both a cardiologist and a COVID-19 researcher who is familiar with the problem. He says there has to be a common-sense solution instead of throwing away leftover doses of the vaccine.
“I would really support efforts to be smart about it. Don’t get stuck in the rules so concretely that you can’t be creative and make sure we get as much people vaccinated as possible,” Koren said. “There are extra doses in certain institutions and we should make the case for [communities who need it most] to hopefully take advantage of that opportunity.”