Not enough willing arms: More than 74,000 COVID-19 vaccines wasted in Virginia since January

COVID-19 Vaccine

Waste is an expected part of the vaccination process. Currently, vaccine wastage in Virginia hasn't exceeded 1%.

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — There was a time not so long ago when the coronavirus vaccine was hard to come by.

“Early on, we couldn’t get this vaccine quick enough to get shots in arms,” said Sentara System Director of Pharmacy Dr. Jon Horton.

Sentara made history in December when it administered the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Virginia to an emergency room environmental services worker In the months that followed, there was a rush for the vaccine. People eagerly scheduled appointments and stood in long lines for their chance to get the shot.

The vaccine became less scarce in late spring and accessible to any adult who wanted it a little more than a year after schools, governments, and businesses shuttered to slow the spread. Each shot administered felt like a pinpoint of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel, and as vaccination rates increased, the number of daily positive cases declined steeply.

Now, nearly five million Virginians — or 57% of the population — are fully vaccinated, but that long, dark tunnel stretches on.

In recent months, demand for the vaccine has stalled and the delta variant has surged. A few hundred cases a day in late spring have grown to thousands a day in late summer, and healthcare providers are facing a new challenge: Too many vaccines, and not enough people willing to take them.

“There’s a lot of communities that we’re struggling with vaccinating or getting people to buy into the vaccinations,” Horton said. “I think that’s across the board. We’ve seen that across the country.”

Virginia Department of Health data shows that 74,000 COVID-19 vaccines have been wasted since January.

“The numbers are high, but when you look at what we have administered, several million doses of vaccine, the amount of wastage, the percentage is actually quite small,” said Acting Director of the Norfolk Department of Public Health Dr. Parham Jaberi.

Small — but increasing. When the shot was in high demand from January to May, Virginia’s vaccine administrators threw away about 10,000 doses. That number has skyrocketed over the summer. Since June, as demand dropped, 64,000 doses have gone to waste.

Sentara has been on the front lines of testing for, treating, and vaccinating against the virus. VDH data shows that across its facilities, Sentara has only wasted a little more than 4,000 vaccines — a drop in the bucket of the more than 155,000 doses it has administered.

But data also shows that more than half of those vaccines were wasted on a single day at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. The healthcare facility was forced to throw away more than 2,800 Pfizer vaccines on Aug. 6. after the batch expired before all of the doses could be administered.

“We made a lot of efforts. Tried to redistribute vaccine that we had that we were at risk of having expire,” Horton said. “Trying to find other community partners, whether it’s another hospital or the local public health sites, but trying to get them to take some of the vaccine that we had that was getting close to expiration, and we were unsuccessful.”

Unsuccessful, because this issue isn’t unique to Sentara. Other providers are facing the same problem: Too many shots, not enough willing arms.

“We’ve been beating the public health drum locally, statewide, and nationally for individuals to get vaccinated, and I think there was generally less interest than we’d like to see during summer months,” Jaberi said. “The good news on the public health front is we’re starting to see those numbers increase again during August.”

Jaberi said waste is an expected part of the vaccination process and isn’t a cause for true alarm until it exceeds 5%. Currently, vaccine wastage in Virginia hasn’t exceeded 1%.

“This is actually a lot less than other types of vaccines, which shows we really were good stewards of those limited resources,” Jaberi said.

VDH has adopted a new policy that may result in more vaccines being administered, but will likely lead to more waste. When vaccines were scarce, providers were encouraged to use every shot in an opened vial. Now, they’re encouraged not to miss an opportunity to vaccinate someone — even if that means some doses will be wasted.

“If we had a clinic, and we had one patient, we would open a vaccine vial for that one patient and administer that patient that one vaccine and we’d waste the remainder,” Horton said.

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Senatara COVID-19 Infographic (Dec. 2020)

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