AUSTIN (KXAN) — As hospitalizations statewide have increased in recent weeks, so has the demand for the COVID-19 vaccine. Still, thousands of doses have been wasted in the last few months, according to state data.

More than 420,000 doses have been spoiled, expired or lost since the state began receiving shipments of the vaccine in December, according to data from Texas Department of State Health Services. The majority of those wasted doses were reported since May.

From December through April, the state allocated providers doses on a weekly basis. In early May, the state shifted from the allocation model to a model based on orders from providers, as-needed. Those doses were then shipped to the providers from the DSHS Pharmacy or from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a daily basis. Before this change, DSHS also published a weekly report of wasted doses, but the agency stopped posting those numbers publicly online when the distribution model shifted.

KXAN investigators obtained DSHS data which shows 402,025 doses were reported as wasted, just since the beginning of May. Prior to that, 21,088 doses had been reported as wasted.

A spokesperson for the state acknowledged the spike and pointed to a drop off in demand from the public around the same time. In early May, the agency began directing providers to vaccinate anyone who wanted a vaccine — even if it meant opening a new vial and wasting the rest of the doses it contained.

“It was a really hard shift from saving every last drop — using the right size syringe to get the right amount — and then all the sudden opening a vial and wasting 10 or 11 doses,” said head pharmacist Rannon Ching of Tarrytown Pharmacy.

Ching said they have worked hard to only open vials when they know they can distribute all the doses, in spite of the state directive. Even so, they’ve avoided turning people away by using a scheduling system, communicating directly to patients and only offering certain vaccine types on certain days.

A pharmacist draws up a dose of Pfizer vaccine at Tarrytown Pharmacy (KXAN Photo/Avery Travis)
A pharmacist draws up a dose of Pfizer vaccine at Tarrytown Pharmacy (KXAN Photo/Avery Travis)

“All those people that came in that wanted a certain one that we may not have had open on that day still came back and got their vaccine, because we made sure before they left that they had access, transportation. If not, we helped them find a place that was close by, as well,” he said. “Especially with health care and a finite resource, just doing the right thing, because there are so many places around the world that don’t have enough doses, so we are just making sure that we are good stewards of that.”

He said he understands how bigger operations might not be able to have the same balance.

For instance, Austin Public Health vaccine efforts account for nearly 2,000 wasted doses, according to the data. A spokesperson said missed appointments contributed that number, but the overall decrease in demand was the biggest factor.

“APH is committed to getting doses into arms, even if that means we have to, unfortunately, open an entire vial to vaccinate one person. This inevitably results in the rest of the doses being wasted,” the spokesperson said. “When demand was high and vaccine supply was low, APH worked very diligently to not waste even one dose. Now that demand has decreased significantly, and there is plenty of supply, we are working diligently to vaccinate anyone who is eligible, even if that results in wasted doses.”

The spokesperson explained they try to draw-up doses on demand, instead of pre-drawing the doses without knowing whether or not they will be used, in order to prevent waste.

KXAN investigators analyzed the data by county, finding initially that Travis County topped the list, with more than 65,000 wasted vaccines reported since May. However, more than 55,000 of those were reported by the DSHS Pharmacy warehouse facility in the county, and KXAN learned the majority of those doses were actually lost at locations in other counties.

The spokesperson for DSHS said two Texas Military Department armories in Houston and San Antonio were storing vaccines for distribution by the state’s mobile vaccine outreach teams and other kinds of “quick distribution.” These facilities were both hit by power outages in May, which affected more than 47,000 doses, due to change in temperature.

The Houston armory reported 34,172 Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses wasted, and the San Antonio armory reported 13,018 Pfizer and Moderna doses wasted, but all of the losses were logged by the DSHS facility in Travis County.

“Whenever there is a temperature excursion, the vaccine manufacturer has to make a determination if it is still viable based on the information from the data logger. That process can take some time, and the vaccine is not used until the determination is made.”

Lara Anton, DSHS Spokesperson

The spokesperson said DSHS moved all of the vaccine inventory from the armories to a vendor with continuous monitoring and the capacity to keep the vaccines at the proper temperature at all times, “to prevent this from happening again.”

They also reduced the amount of inventory on hand and has begun placing orders for direct shipment to any provider that requests large quantities.

The DSHS spokesperson also cited several other reasons for the increase in overall waste: providers were more familiar with the waste-reporting process, and some vaccines started expiring after April depending on the lot.