25 Investigates: As COVID-19 vaccines remain in short supply, MA providers wasted thousands of doses

BOSTON — Though demand for COVID vaccines continues to outpace supply, 25 Investigates found the coveted injection is being wasted instead of going into the arms of Massachusetts residents.

Investigative reporter Ted Daniel reviewed Department of Public Health (DPH) data to see how many of the doses were wasted and learn why the waste occurred.

The data shows 1204 doses, mostly of the Moderna vaccine, were reported wasted as of Feb. 22. That represents a small fraction of the 1.5 million shipped to the state so far.

Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states to make information on COVID vaccine waste publicly available.

We found the waste occurred at hospitals, community health centers, medical groups and jails. DPH’s official tally does not include the 1,900 doses that were lost last month when a freezer was accidentally unplugged at the VA hospital in Jamaica Plain.

“It’s actually mind-blowing that something that can save someone’s life and save other people’s life is just being destroyed and thrown away,” said Jessica Kosow of Newton.

She and colleague Joel Leyden from Manchester, Connecticut are vaccine hunters, concerned individuals who’ve made it their mission to help people navigate the often difficult process of finding COVID shots and scheduling appointments. Kosow and Leyden provide the service for free. They are also the administrators of the Vaccine Hunter Massachusetts Facebook group, where people can collect and share information about providers who have excess vaccine.

Kosow and Leyden call around to various vaccine providers to ask if they expect to have extra or excess doses at the end of the day. If they get a positive response they immediately share it with group members group who belong to a priority population and have them wait it out.

“You got people that are dying,” said Leyden, who says he’s seen the frustration of not being able to get a vaccine appointment firsthand. “I would say the level of anxiety that I am witnessing, and that I personally feel, is no different than that of having been in a combat unit. I’m a vet.”

The documented vaccine waste in the state appears to have occurred at the provider level, where the doses are administered, and not during shipping.

The Pfizer and Modern vaccine must be kept super cold and used within six hours of being removed from the freezer. If extra doses are thawed or someone skips an appointment, the vaccine is at risk of going to waste.

“If we can be shipping ice cream, fresh fruit and vegetables from overall around the world as well as fish, we should be able to get this done,” said Dr. Ann Nagurney, a pharmaceutical supply chain expert at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

25 Investigates reviewed guidance issued by DPH to vaccine providers about extra doses.

It says “…you can use your clinical judgement to administer the vaccine to a person in another priority group… to avoid vaccine waste.”

But we found it’s up to the individual providers to make that happen and there’s no uniform system in place to ensure doses are not wasted at the end of the day.

“We have to make sure that we have either waiting lists or some sort of pre-registration system so that if there are some vaccines available at the end of the day, all the processes are in place so people can come and get vaccinated,” said Dr. Nagurney.

Vaccine hunters like Kosow and Leyden see a wasted dose as a wasted opportunity to save a life.

“According to CDC guidelines, we’re not jumping in line. What we’re doing is we’re saving vaccine,” said Leyden.

“I’ve at least gotten a couple dozen appointments for people,” added Kosow. “I think there needs to be some sort of national mandate of what to do with that vaccine so there’s no confusion and there’s no waste.”

If you’re trying to get a vaccine appointment, the vaccine hunters say:

  • Don’t be shy about asking providers about missed appointments or excess doses.
  • Looks for appointments outside of your immediate area. They say this is especially true in you live in a densely populated area.

25 Investigates asked the state’s COVID Command Center if there are any plans to create a uniform system to distribute excess doses but our inquiry went unanswered.

A previous version of the broadcast report named Reliant Medical Group in Milford as a source of vaccine waste according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Health.  After our original report aired, Reliant contacted 25 Investigates disputing the DPH data.  A Reliant spokesperson tells 25 Investigates:

“We have not wasted Covid-19 vaccine at Reliant Medical Group.  The State report that was cited in this coverage does not align with our record keeping.  We have validated this with the state, and we have been informed that the report is being updated.  We take the management of the COVID-19 vaccine process and the vaccination needs of our patients very seriously.   We are diligent and careful, and we have processes and protocols in place to ensure that vaccine waste does not occur.”

-Linda Coccola, Chief Communications Officer

According to a DPH spokesperson, “the data was self-reported in error by Reliant and the facility has no wasted doses. DPH’s wastage report is being updated to reflect this development.”

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