Pharmacist arrested: 57 got COVID vaccines left out in intentional act

Police and federal authorities are investigating after a Wisconsin health system said an employee admitted to deliberately spoiling more than 500 doses of coronavirus vaccine.

Grafton police on Thursday afternoon, Dec. 31 confirmed the arrest of a Grafton resident, a former pharmacist at Aurora Grafton, on charges of first-degree recklessly endangering safety, adulterating a prescription drug and criminal damage to property.

Fifty-seven people received vaccinations from that portion of the vaccine that were ultimately administered, Dr. Jeff Bahr, of Aurora Health Care Medical Group confirmed Thursday, Dec. 31.

Bahr said officials have been in contact with people that received vaccinations from the batch of vaccine that was ultimately discarded, and there will be no harm or negative effect from vaccines believed to be rendered ineffective.

Aurora Medical Center first reported that the doses had been spoiled on Saturday, Dec. 26, saying they had been accidentally left out unrefrigerated overnight by an employee at Aurora Medical Center in Grafton. The health system said Wednesday that the doses of vaccine now appear to have been deliberately spoiled.

Bahr said Thursday a pharmacy tech found 57 vials outside of the refrigerator; the incident reported to superiors. The person responsible for removing the vials maintained it was an accidental removal while trying to access other items.

Officials became increasingly suspicious over the following days, Bahr said, and the person responsible admitted to purposely removing the vaccine. There's no indication this person tampered with the vaccine, or any other medicines.

This was a situation that involved a "bad actor," Bahr said, "as opposed to a bad process." 

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Bahr said they are "not in a position to make comment or judgments on motive" as law enforcement investigates.

When the vials were found left out on Dec. 26, they gave out 57 doses because they thought they were still viable given the 12-hour window of viability after removal from cold storage. However, they later found out the vaccines had been taken out of refrigeration on Dec. 24, as well.

While no vaccines were administered on Dec. 24 and Dec. 25, Bahr said those 57 doses administered on Dec. 26 were not harmful but were not effective.

Police in Grafton, about 20 miles north of Milwaukee, said in a statement Wednesday that the department, FBI and Food and Drug Administration are "actively" investigating. Police said they were notified of the alleged tampering Wednesday night. 

In a statement late Wednesday confirming the incident was intentional, Aurora said the employee was fired. 

"We continue to believe that vaccination is our way out of the pandemic. We are more than disappointed that this individual’s actions will result in a delay of more than 500 people receiving their vaccine," the statement said.

Bahr said Thursday more than 23,000 vaccines have been administered over 16 days. After Saturday's incident, Bahr said they've already received additional vaccine shipments and the vaccination process continues as planned.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin continued to rise after dipping in early December. The state Department of Health Services reported 3,810 newly confirmed cases on Thursday, marking the third straight day of rising daily infections. The state has now seen 481,102 cases.

COVID-19 was a factor in 41 more deaths, pushing the state's overall death toll to 4,859. The survival rate remained unchanged at 99%.

Aurora Grafton: Discarded COVID-19 vaccine incident was intentional

More than 500 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine had to be "discarded" after they were removed from a pharmacy refrigerator at the Aurora Medical Center in Grafton in an intentional act.