Two days later, the employee acknowledged having “intentionally removed the vaccine from refrigeration,” the system, Aurora Health Care, said in a statement late Wednesday.
The employee, who has not been identified, was fired, Aurora Health said. Its statement did not address the worker’s motive 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, according to its website.
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 was also aware, said a spokeswoman, Stephanie Caccomo, who similarly declined to address the existence of an investigation. She directed questions to the hospital.
Jeff Bahr, president of Aurora Health Care Medical Group, was scheduled to provide an update on the incident Thursday afternoon.
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.
Tara C. Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University and an authority on antipathy toward vaccines, said the incident will prompt medical providers to reassess who has access to the shots, even among their own employees.
“Hopefully, this is a one-off, but I’m sure places will now have to think about whether those handling the vaccines are trusted, in addition to making sure supplies are under camera surveillance,” she said.
Security has been paramount in state planning, officials say. When Wisconsin began receiving vaccine shipments earlier this month, the health department did not disclose the eight regional hubs receiving the bulk of the materials.
Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services, said at a Dec. 14 news conference, “This is precious vaccine. We do not want to create any security risks.” She said the state had consulted with the Department of Homeland Security on the plans.
On Thursday, Health Secretary-designee Andrea Palm said her department has worked with Aurora Health officials as they “investigated the situation, reviewed their processes and implemented improvements.”
“It is disappointing that any covid-19 vaccine was wasted in Wisconsin,” she added in a statement to The Washington Post.
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 have 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 Pfizer-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. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D), taking to Twitter last week to celebrate the start of shipments of Moderna’s vaccine, said it marked “another step forward in fighting this pandemic.”
In its original statement on Monday, 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 left out overnight by the employee after “temporarily being removed to access other items.”
The health system apologized, saying, “We are clearly disappointed and regret this happened.”