Fact check: How many of North Carolina's covid vaccines are spoiled?

Posted January 26, 2021 5:29 p.m. EST
Updated January 26, 2021 5:44 p.m. EST

With North Carolina initially among the slower states to administer coronavirus vaccines, reporters are raising questions about the effectiveness of its rollout.

In a press conference on Jan. 21, a reporter asked Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen how many shots had been misused or gone to waste.

“We as a state don’t want to waste any vaccine. We are seeing very small numbers of vaccine waste recorded in our CVMS system, but it’s very few, like in the tens of doses,” Cohen responded.

Is North Carolina’s spoil number “very small,” even “in the tens?”

The state health department says, on average, it’s receiving reports of fewer than 10 spoiled doses per provider. However, the total number of spoiled doses is in the four digits, not two.

A day after Cohen’s briefing, North Carolina’s health department told the Associated Press that a total of 1,280 doses had been discarded.

About the discrepancy

We asked the department about the comments Cohen made on Thursday. Was she describing the 1,280 number? Had she seen that specific 1,280 figure?

Chris Mackey, the department’s director of communications, said no.

Cohen hadn’t seen the specific total when she spoke at that Jan. 21 briefing, Mackey said, because the department didn’t run a report on the numbers until later. Cohen based her comments on “one-off conversations” with other health officials.

“We ran a report when someone asked us for it. Mandy didn’t have the number,” Mackey said in a phone interview. “She was trying to say we haven’t seen any big incidents of vaccine waste.”

The 1,280 spoiled doses account for 0.1% of the 1.1 million doses in the state, the department said in an email.

There are 250 healthcare providers administering the shots, the email said, meaning the losses average out to about five doses per provider.

Comparing states

It’s difficult to know how North Carolina’s numbers compare with other states.

The CDC has instructed states to report vaccine waste into its tracking system, agency spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund told PolitiFact. However, ProPublica reporters found that some states aren’t tracking their spoiled doses.

“We are working to figure out how to provide this data online in the future when the data is more complete,” Nordlund said.

A 2019 report from the World Health Organization says vaccine waste is expected to be anywhere between 5% and 20% during mass vaccination campaigns.

There are reports of other states losing hundreds of doses in single incidents.

Wisconsin received national attention when authorities charged a local pharmacist with deliberately destroying around 500 doses of the vaccine.

In Massachusetts, NBC News reported that a Veterans Affairs hospital lost 1,900 doses after a cleaning contractor accidentally unplugged a refrigerator. In Ohio, the Columbus Dispatch reported a pharmacy spoiled 890 doses by failing to keep them properly stored. In another case, nearly 12,000 doses spoiled on the way to Michigan after the shipping truck got too cold.

Our ruling

PolitiFact: Half-true

Cohen said the health department is receiving reports of “very small numbers of vaccine waste … but it’s very few, like in the tens of doses.” The health department provided clarity on Cohen’s remarks a day later.

It’s fair to say the rate of vaccine spoilage is “very small” — a tenth of 1%. However, it was inaccurate for Cohen to say the number was “in the tens.” The total number was 1,280.

We rate this claim Half True.

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