‘We have a policy of not wasting any vaccine,’ local health departments explain who gets priority when there are leftover doses

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Tami Jeffries, R.N., prepares the first locally-available dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, Va. on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. (Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star via AP)

JOHNSON COUNTY, Indiana — With thousands of Hoosiers waiting for their chance to get the coronavirus vaccine, a lucky few were bumped to the front of the line as Johnson County health officials rushed to use extra, perishable doses by the end of the day.

On Thursday, a shipment of COVID-19 vaccines arrived at the Johnson County Health Department clinic from Terre Haute. However – there was one problem – the doses were already thawed.

“When they transported the vaccine, they did not keep it on ice,” said Director of the Johnson County Health Department, Betsy Swearingen. “So, when we received it, it was partially thawed and not able to be refrozen.”

A thawed vaccine can only be used within five days before it expires, leaving the Johnson County Health Department and Johnson Memorial Hospital to administer 975 doses in the two remaining days their clinic was open.

“We have a policy of not wasting any vaccine. The state has asked us not to waste a single dose and we’ve been very successful at not wasting a dose,” said Swearingen.

Swearingen said the county usually administers 300 doses a day. However, with an expiring shipment, officials doubled up on appointments, called more than 100 Hoosiers on their waitlist, and then had to open up eligibility themselves.

“We initially sent an email out to county employees – many of whom qualified for the vaccine but just were having scheduling difficulties,” Swearingen said.

While the vaccine eligibility was widened, Swearingen said the goal remained to vaccinate those most at risk first.

In Madison County — Administrator at Madison County Health Department, Stephenie Grimes, said they follow similar protocols. First, they call those who have appointments the next day.

“Some take us up on it and some don’t, so we continue going through the list for the next day or the day after that,” said Grimes. 

Once calls have been made to future appointments, the county then resorts to their own waitlist. Grimes said while they try to have the waitlist mirror current state eligibility requirements it can vary.

“Because at the end of the day: we want shots in arms and that absolutely is my mission,” Grimes said. “I will not leave until I find someone to take that dose. We are not – absolutely not – throwing doses away. We will not do it.”

Under current state guidelines, the only Hoosiers eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine are first responders, health care workers and individuals age 70 and older.

“I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I knew that we were wasting vaccine or disposing of something that is so precious right now,” said Swearingen.

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