| Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
An Aurora Advocate pharmacist intentionally removed COVID-19 vaccines from a refrigerator twice last week, resulting in 57 people receiving ineffective doses of the vaccine and more than 500 doses being discarded.
Jeff Bahr, president of Aurora Health Care Medical Group, called the pharmacist a “bad actor” during a virtual press conference Thursday afternoon, but said he could not speak to the pharmacist’s motive.
Bahr did not identify the pharmacist but said that person is no longer employed with Advocate Aurora.
Early Saturday morning, Bahr said, a pharmacy technician discovered 57 vials of Moderna vaccine outside the refrigerator where they had been stored. The technician put the vials back in the refrigerator and reported the incident to superiors, Bahr said.
“The pharmacist responsible for removing the vials maintained that this was an inadvertent error that occurred while the individual was accessing other items from the same refrigerator,” Bahr said.
In the hours afterward, leaders determined the vaccine could still be administered that morning, he said.
But as the system continued its internal review, he said, “we became increasingly suspicious of the behavior of the individual in question.”
The pharmacist was suspended and after multiple interviews admitted Wednesday to intentionally removing the vaccine from the refrigerator, Bahr said. The staff member also admitted to removing and then returning the vaccine to the refrigerator the night before, between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, he said.
He said no vaccinations were administered on Dec. 24 or Dec. 25.
That means, he said, that the 57 vaccinations administered on Saturday were either less effective or ineffective.
He said the 57 vaccine recipients had been notified and that “at this time, there is no evidence that the vaccinations pose any harm to them other than potentially being less effective or ineffective.”
It was not clear from Bahr’s comments how long the vaccine was left out.
“There is no evidence that the individual in question tampered with the vaccine in any way other than removing it from refrigeration, leading to what is known as denaturing the vaccine,” he said. “There is no evidence to suggest that this individual tampered with any other vaccine administered at Aurora Medical Center-Grafton.”
Bahr responded to questions posed by a moderator but members of the media were not provided an opportunity to ask Bahr questions directly.
Earlier Thursday, FBI spokesman Leonard Peace told the Journal Sentinel in an email that the agency was aware of the incident and “takes allegations of federal violations seriously.”
“However, it is the policy of the FBI not to confirm or deny whether or not it is conducting an investigation,” he wrote.
Grafton police said in a statement late Wednesday that department, along with the FBI and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration were investigating.
Grafton Police Chief Jeff Caponera did not return a voicemail seeking comment Thursday morning.
Reporter Ricardo Torres will be live-tweeting the news conference, and this story will be updated.
Here’s what we know going into the news conference:
• Advocate Aurora Health said an employee intentionally removed 57 vials of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine from a refrigerator Friday.
• This caused most of the 570 doses to become ineffective and be discarded Saturday.
• Clinicians were able to administer a few doses within the allowable 12-hour post-refrigeration window.
• Aurora fired the employee and said their action is “a violation of our core values.”
• Authorities believe it was an intentional act
• Grafton Police Department said it was notified by Aurora shortly after 6 p.m. “regarding an employee tampering with vials of the COVID-19 vaccine” at its hospital at 975 Port Washington Road.
• The incident is being investigated by the FBI and the Food and Drug Administration as well as Grafton police.
• A source close to the investigation said there is no reason to believe more than one individual was involved.
• Initially, Aurora was “led to believe” the removal was an error.
• On Wednesday, the employee “acknowledged that they intentionally removed the vaccine from refrigeration,” Aurora said.
• No other employees were involved, Aurora said.
Aurora has implemented ‘improvements’
“It is disappointing that any COVID-19 vaccine was wasted in Wisconsin,” DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm said in a statement Thursday.
DHS has worked with Aurora as it investigated the incident, reviewed processes and “implemented improvements,” Palm said.
“We will continue to work with our healthcare partners to get as many shots in arms as quickly and safely as possible,” the statement continues.
“The intentional destruction of vaccine doses is disheartening,” Wisconsin state Sen. Alberta Darling, who represents Grafton and the 8th District, said Thursday. “Those doses are meant for front line workers. This senseless act puts them in danger.”
Darling said her office is in contact with officials from Aurora Health.
“I applaud Aurora Health for their quick response to this senseless act,” she said.
Moderna vaccine doses stored at individual hospitals
Unlike the Pfizer vaccine, which is stored in undisclosed locations around the state, Moderna’s vaccine was sent directly to the entities that are conducting the vaccinations, according to a Dec. 21 statement from Gov. Tony Evers’ office.
The Moderna vaccine can be stored at freezer temperatures for up to six months, and is stable at regular refrigerator temperatures for 30 days — making it simpler to transport than the Pfizer vaccine. But once thawed, the vaccine cannot be refrozen.
At room temperature, the Moderna vaccine can keep for up to 12 hours.
State health officials cited “security reasons” for not giving information on the eight regional hubs where the Pfizer vaccine — which must be kept at ultra-cold temperatures — is stored, saying they’d consulted with the Department of Homeland Security.
“This is precious vaccine. We do not want to create any security risks,” Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the state Department of Health Services, said Dec. 14 during a virtual news conference.
DHS requires providers to participate in a comprehensive registration process to become a COVID-19 vaccine provider, a source in the Evers administration said.
That registration process requires training on storage and handling of the vaccines.
Registration also requires a review of the provider’s “cold chain plan” and procedures for receiving, storing and handling the vaccine, which should include the most recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
DHS requires any wasted vaccine be reported, investigated and addressed with a written plan of improvement, the source said.
Wisconsin vaccine plan: ‘Several months’ before priority group vaccinated
DHS estimates it will take “several months” before those in the first priority group for receiving the vaccination — front line health care providers and residents and staff at nursing homes — are vaccinated.
The state has been allocated 265,575 doses, according to DHS.
As of Tuesday, DHS reported that 156,875 doses had been shipped to locations across Wisconsin and more than 47,000 administered — 40,850 of the Pfizer vaccine and 6,306 of the Moderna vaccine.
The figures varied slightly from those from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reported that as of Wednesday morning, Wisconsin had received 159,800 doses of the vaccine and 37,446 people had received their first dose.
The state first received doses of the Pfizer vaccine in mid-December followed by the Moderna vaccine.
Wisconsin received 49,725 doses of the Pfizer vaccine the first week but leaders were then told that the state would be receiving fewer doses than expected the next week. That prompted Evers to call on the federal government to send more vaccine to Wisconsin.
The federal government said there was an error in its initial estimates of states’ vaccine allocations.
The state expects about 100,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine to arrive over the course of weeks, a DHS spokeswoman said last week, providing a longer timeline than originally expected.
This story will be updated.
Evan Casey, Eddie Morales, Laura Schulte and Ricardo Torres of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report