As soon as the COVID-19 vaccines are thawed out for use from freezing temperatures, the clock starts ticking on their limited shelf life.
It can become a challenging task in balancing time, extra doses and finding who to inoculate, but Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital officials said Wednesday no dose has gone to waste.
“That’s our mantra: No doses wasted,” said Carissa Bortugno, a registered pharmacist and senior director of clinical support services at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital.
Vaccination teams at the hospital have been offering health care workers the Pfizer vaccine since mid-December, and are now offering it to people who are 65 and older. The hospital receives shipments from Los Angeles County on a week-by-week basis, with an average of about 2,000 vaccines per shipment. With one to four extra doses per vial, Henry Mayo can use an estimated 2,400, according to Bortugno.
Here’s how the registered pharmacist described the vaccination process over the past month:
‘No doses wasted’
“Once we take the vaccine out of the refrigerator and we dilute it, it’s good in the vial for six hours. Once we draw it up into syringes, it’s good for about an hour,” she said. “As we get closer to the end of each day of appointments, we kind of take vaccines out of the refrigerator more slowly. We don’t want to take out too many so that we don’t have any doses really left at the end.”
On any typical day, the hospital either has no extra doses and sometimes one to four extra doses. With those extra, the time starts to tick and vaccination teams try to find people within the criteria for who is allowed to receive the vaccine, such as health care workers and now those 65 and older, to avoid wasting doses.
“We call around in the hospital units to see if there’s anyone who’s due for a second dose or who hasn’t gotten the first dose but would like one and has changed their mind,” said Bortugno. “Sometimes, we’ll look to just 65 and older populations that kind of are wandering in and out of the building at that time. We scramble just to find anyone in that current tier and as of today, we have not wasted a single dose here in our clinic.”
The hospital’s efforts to avoid vaccine waste come as reports emerge of other health facilities disposing of unused or spoiled vaccines across the country due to what medical professionals have expressed as unclear state and federal guidelines, according to multiple news reports.
At locations such as CVS, which have partnered with the state to vaccine long-term care facility residents and staff, extra doses deemed clinically viable “can be transported for use at another facility or for another eligible population. In the rare instance that doses have reached their expiration, they are disposed of per CDC and manufacturer guidelines,” according to CVS spokeswoman Monica Prinzing.
Concerns over an unquantified number of wasted vaccines have even prompted congressional leaders to propose laws that would address the issue. On Wednesday, Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita, announced that he and Rep. Ted Budd, R-North Carolina, introduced the Vaccinate More Americans Act, which would allow vaccine providers to administer leftover COVID-19 vaccines to individuals eligible to receive the vaccine in following phased allocation groups rather than let doses spoil.
“I am concerned by the reports I have seen that COVID-19 vaccines are not being distributed due to state and local government red tape,” said Garcia in a prepared statement. “These burdensome rules and regulations are further slowing our ability to swiftly and safely open our country back up.”
Scheduling the second dose
Each vaccination site is different, but at Henry Mayo, the staff implemented a system aimed at easing the second-dose appointment process for residents.
“We’ve created QR codes and when they sit down to wait after they receive their first vaccine they scan those codes and register themselves for their follow-up appointment,” said Bortugno.
At the county’s mass-vaccination sites, including at Six Flags Magic Mountain, residents are not registered on-site for their second dose but are asked to visit the county website to schedule an appointment, she added.
Bortugno said that while booking an appointment is currently a challenge for many, she encourages those who qualify to “keep trying and keep checking regularly.”
To set up an appointment, visit vaccinatelacounty.com or call 833-540-0473 between 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., seven days a week.