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Wisconsin hospital worker arrested for spoiled vaccine doses

Authorities have arrested a suburban Milwaukee pharmacist suspected of deliberately ruining hundreds of doses of coronavirus vaccine.

GRAFTON, Wis. —  Authorities arrested a suburban Milwaukee pharmacist Thursday suspected of deliberately ruining hundreds of doses of coronavirus vaccine by removing it from refrigeration for two nights.

The Grafton Police Department said the former Advocate Aurora Health pharmacist was arrested on suspicion of reckless endangerment, adulterating a prescription drug and criminal damage to property. The department said in a news release that he was in jail. Police did not identify the pharmacist, saying he has not yet been formally charged.

Advocate Aurora Health Care Chief Medical Group Officer Jeff Bahr told reporters during a teleconference Thursday afternoon that the pharmacist deliberately removed 57 vials of the Moderna vaccine from refrigeration overnight on Dec. 24 into Dec. 25, returned them, then left them out again on the night of Dec. 25 into Saturday. A pharmacy technician discovered the vials outside the refrigerator on Saturday morning. Workers used the vaccine to inoculate 57 people. Bahr said their doses were ineffective.

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Credit: AP
Boxes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are prepared to be shipped at the Pfizer Global Supply Kalamazoo manufacturing plant in Portage, Mich., Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)

The pharmacist intentionally removed the vaccine from refrigeration, said Jeff Bahr, chief medical officer for Aurora Advocate Health, but he declined to comment on the individual's motive. He did not identify the pharmacist and stressed that the facility's security protocols are sound.

“This was a situation involving a bad actor, as opposed to a bad process,” he said.

Bahr said during his teleconference that a pharmacy tech at the Grafton facility discovered 57 vials of the Moderna vaccine outside their refrigerator early on Saturday morning. The vials contained enough doses to inoculate about 570 people, he said.

The vials were returned to the refrigerator and the tech reported the discovery. The pharmacist who removed them initially said he or she took them out to access other items in the refrigerator and inadvertently failed to replace them, Bahr said. 

The Moderna vaccine is viable for 12 hours after being removed from refrigeration. In light of that, Bahr said medical personnel used doses from the thawed vials to inoculate 57 people on Saturday and discarded the rest. 

He said officials in the health system suspended the pharmacist after growing more suspicious over the next few days. After multiple interviews, the pharmacist admitted Wednesday to deliberately removing the vials from the refrigerator overnight Dec. 24 to Dec. 25 before returning them and then removing them a second time, Bahr said. 

That meant that the vaccine had been outside the refrigerator for longer than 12 hours and the doses administered to the 57 people on Saturday were rendered less effective or totally ineffective, Bahr said. Moderna officials have told Aurora that the spoiled vaccine shouldn't pose any safety concerns, Bahr said.

The Grafton facility hadn't received any Moderna vaccine before Dec. 24, which means the pharmacist wouldn't have had an opportunity to tamper with any other vials, he added.

“We continue to believe that vaccination is our way out of the pandemic. We are more than disappointed that this individual’s actions will result in a delay of more than 500 people receiving their vaccine,” the health care system said in a statement. 

The number of COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin has been rising in recent days after dipping in early December. The state Department of Health Services reported 3,810 newly confirmed cases on Thursday, marking the third straight day of rising daily infections. The state has now seen 481,102 cases.

COVID-19 was a factor in 41 more deaths, pushing the state's overall death toll to 4,859. The survival rate remained unchanged at 99%.