526 Illinois COVID-19 vaccines wasted, officials fight to keep discarded doses minimal

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel, Ross Weidner and Jonathan Fagg WLS logo
Tuesday, February 16, 2021
526 Illinois COVID vaccines wasted, officials fight to keep discard low
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Illinois public health officials said as of February 10, 526 COVID-19 vaccine doses have gone to waste so far statewide.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- With COVID-19 vaccines in such short supply, the I-Team investigated what public health authorities are doing to make sure nothing goes to waste and the precious commodities end up in people's arms instead of the trash.

Illinois public health officials said as of February 10, 526 COVID-19 vaccine doses have gone to waste so far statewide. That's less than 1 percent of all vaccines administered statewide.

Sometimes the waste is caused by a broken vial or syringe. In other cases, vaccines have been drawn but not administered, or vials have been opened and they've been unable to administer all the doses inside.

While only a small percentage of the doses administered in Illinois have ended up in the trash, public health experts warned that without careful planning, delays and more potentially wasted vaccines could plague the operation.

"No vaccine should go to waste," said Dr. Georges Benjamin, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association. "A lot of times when the dose has gone wasted is because we just haven't planned effectively enough."

He recommends that once supply is available, officials should ramp up vaccine distribution to a 24-7 operation like a drive-thru fast food restaurant, especially to help essential workers who may not be able to take time off to get a vaccine during the day. The Chicago native urged public health authorities to make sure systems are in place to have people on standby for extra doses so they don't end up wasted.

"Every dose that's wasted is a dose that could save somebody's life," Dr. Benjamin said. He said even if a couple doses end up in the trash, that's a concern. "That's two people who either didn't get their first dose, or their second dose and at the end of the day, it can save their life."

The I-Team's data investigation uncovered minimal waste so far across the region, from fewer than 200 doses wasted in Chicago to two doses wasted in Kane County because of a needle malfunction. DuPage County reports fewer than 57 doses wasted. So far, not a single dose has been wasted in Kendall County. In all, less than one hundredth of a percent of all doses statewide have been discarded.

In north suburban Lake County, public health officials have started a mass vaccination site at the county fairgrounds where they vaccinate 600 people vaccinated daily. So far, Lake County officials said 67 doses have gone to waste countywide; less than 1 percent of the total they've received. They said they a keep "hot list" of close-by eligible people who want the vaccine to minimize waste at the end of the day.

"Handling the vaccine is a major challenge," said Mark Pfister,Lake County Health Department executive director. "The last thing we want is to have any vaccine being wasted. At the end of the day since it's such a you know fragile resource but also a limited resource."

In DuPage County, a new fairgrounds mass vaccination site is designed to help increase vaccine administration. County officials tell the I-Team they keep a standby list of vaccine candidates to minimize waste and hope more doses will be available soon to help frustrated residents searching for scarce appointments.

"We have a lot of procedures in place to make sure we kind of monitor inventory so we don't end up in a position that you have extra doses," said Chris Hoff, DuPage Heath Department Director of Community Health. "Because every dose is a dose that can go into somebody's arm."

Neither Will County nor Cook County officials responded to I-Team requests for information about their vaccine waste data. Robert Davies, Emergency Response Coordinator for the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District said their Moderna lots have zero net waste and actually had 88 more doses than they expected. County officials are not able to calculate net waste from their Pfizer allotment at this time. Sangamon County officials said only one dose went to waste there because a needle broke off in the last dose of a vial.

Illinois Department of Public Health data analyzed by the I-Team shows that as of Feb. 15, state officials have administered 73.7 percent of the vaccine doses that Illinois has been allocated. Director of the Northwestern University Transportation Center and logistics expert Hani Mahmassani said that the state's relatively slow rollout is part of the reason for the apparent minimal waste so far. He added that the situation that may change as distribution expands to more sites.

"That, of course, will will help increase the rate at which we are vaccinating people, using the product, but on the other hand, it also reduces the control on waste," said Mahmassani. So far, this has not been at least a visible story of waste but rather one of inefficiency."

"This has been somewhat rocky, you know, it's it's not been what you would have wished for. Part of it has to do, I think, with just a situation, and frankly a distribution system that didn't really exist in this country," said Dr. Archana Chatterjee, dean of the Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University

Public health experts said that without that national distribution plan, states and local jurisdictions are having to go it alone, with varying success. Experts stressed that even though 526 vaccine doses being trashed is a fraction of what state officials have received, that represents 526 loved ones, neighbors or friends who may still not have been inoculated. It's 526 people who may be continuing their struggle just to get an appointment.

The I-Team has filed Freedom of Information Act requests with state and Chicago officials seeking answers on how every jurisdiction statewide is managing and tracking waste. They will continue to update the story as they learn more about how this vital resource is being tracked.