Boston VA hospital manages to destroy nearly 2,000 vaccine doses

Just when you thought things were going to go swimmingly with President Joe Biden’s “new” plan for the vaccine rollout we run into yet another story of someone stepping on a rake and mucking up the works. At Jamaica Plain VA Medical Center in Boston, workers found an unpleasant surprise awaiting them when they arrived on Tuesday morning. More than 1,900 doses of the Moderna vaccine had “spoiled” overnight and had to be discarded. Unlike some previous cases we’ve covered where workers maliciously destroyed vials of vaccine intentionally, this one turned out to be more of a technical problem. One of the freezers where the vaccine was stored had “failed” without anyone noticing and the vials were deemed unfit for use. But it’s the way that the freezer failed that’s raising questions.

Nearly 2,000 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine were spoiled at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Boston after a contractor accidentally unplugged a freezer, hospital officials announced Thursday.

Staff at the Jamaica Plain VA Medical Center discovered on Tuesday that a freezer had failed, compromising 1,900 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

The plug to the freezer was found to be loose after a contractor accidentally unplugged it while cleaning, according to a statement from Kyle Toto, a spokesperson for VA Boston Healthcare System. The freezer had been in a safe location and had an alarm system, he said.

So basically we’re seeing a case where a janitor who was cleaning on the night shift either accidentally unplugged the freezer where the vaccines were being stored or he unplugged it while cleaning and forgot to plug it back in. Either way, it’s probably not going to be handled as a criminal matter, but the result is the same. Two thousand people, most likely veterans, will not be getting their vaccinations as soon as had been anticipated.

What they need to figure out is whether or not their alarm system actually works. Apparently, the freezer was still functional (or would have been if it was plugged in), but when its high-temperature alarm should have gone off after being unplugged for a while, nobody was notified. That was the real technical failure here.

The reason this is important is that it highlights one of the key issues with the Moderna vaccine. The Pfizer vaccine has to be kept at extra-cold, sub-zero temperatures. But the Moderna version is not only spoiled if it gets too warm but also if it gets too cold. Last weekend, another large shipment of 12,000 Moderna doses being sent to Michigan were all spoiled because they were frozen down to sub-zero temperatures. That may have been a result of confusion on the part of the delivery company believing they were shipping Pfizer doses or just another mechanical failure.

What we’re learning here is that the Moderna vaccine may be incredibly effective with a greater than 90% success rate, but it’s also extremely fragile. It has to be stored somewhere in the correct temperature range or it goes bad fairly quickly. There clearly should have been a lot more training for not only the people responsible for storing and administering it but the people hired to transport it as well. This is yet another reason to look forward to the final approval and wide release of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. That one can be stored at standard refrigerator temperatures of 35.6 to 46.4 degrees Fahrenheit and for longer periods of time.