A Second Look: What actually happened at Springfield Hospital?

Springfield Hospital. Springfield Hospital photo.

By Cynthia Prairie
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Three weeks ago, Vermonters were surprised by the news that 860 doses of Moderna vaccine ready for use by Springfield Hospital in the statewide battle against Covid 19 would be disposed of because of an “excursion” of slightly more than 1 degree above the accepted storage temperature. (Telegraph, Jan. 27, 2021)

That information came directly from Secretary Mike Smith of the Agency of Human Services during a biweekly Covid-19 press conference as he read a text from his cellphone. He also announced that the state was sending a Health Department team to investigate the situation.

However, the hospital did not need to dispose of the doses, two of three monitors had actually registered a temperature in the acceptable range, and that Health Department team didn’t arrive in Springfield for three days.

News quickly unfolded in the hours that followed the announcement:

But one nagging question remained: Which of the three monitors was not reading correctly? Two that read in the acceptable range are owned by the hospital; the one that read above it had been provided by the state, and the state’s temperature monitoring systems were described by Health Commissioner Mark Levine, M.D. as “exquisite.”

What is clear is that no one – not the state but especially not the hospital — wanted to appear to be blaming anyone for any problems that might have occurred before, during or after that Jan. 27 press conference. And what was to become clearer was that clarity was hard to come by.

Tuesday, Jan. 26: State monitor reads above accepted level

The situation began on Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 26. That’s when the pharmacy at Springfield Hospital, led by Dr. Lester Peck, noticed discrepancies between the two monitors that were in the vaccine refrigerator. One monitor is owned by the hospital, the other by the state.

The pharmacist then put an hospital monitor into the refrigerator and found that its temperature was closely aligned with the hospital monitor currently in use. As reported earlier, the hospital monitors registered temperatures within the acceptable storage range of below 8 degrees celsius, while the state monitor registered 9.1, which was 1.1 degree above the acceptable high.

The hospital pharmacy then called the state to explain the findings and, according to Anna Smith, Springfield Hospital’s vice president of Marketing & Development and the hospital’s chief spokesperson, the state called Moderna. That evening, the state told the hospital that Moderna gave the go-ahead for using the vaccines, 240 doses of which were scheduled for its Wednesday morning clinic.

Wednesday, Jan. 27: Vaxx clinic canceled, others up in air

But on Wednesday morning, just prior to the 8 a.m. vaccination clinic, “we got the call from the state and had to cancel the clinic because the state said it wanted to discuss it further with Moderna,” Anna Smith said.

The hospital then attempted to reach all those scheduled for the clinic to cancel the appointments. However, it also left hanging two hospital clinics that were depending on those vaccines: One on Friday, Jan. 29 and one on the following Tuesday, Feb. 2.

Then, about an hour into Gov. Phil Scott’s biweekly press conference, which was being held on a Wednesday instead of its usual Tuesday schedule, Secretary Smith announced Moderna was requiring that “all doses be wasted due to concerns about viability.”

Moderna has not responded to an email sent to it at the time.

Anna Smith said that the pharmacy never intended to dispose of the vaccines since the probe was still under way.

Thursday, Jan. 28: 860 doses safe to use; clinics get go-ahead

By Thursday afternoon, the state issued a statement saying that Moderna had declared that the vaccines were safe to use. Around the same time, Springfield Hospital issued a statement saying that its Friday clinic would go on as scheduled.

The state had arranged for the hospital to get the needed 120 doses from Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, a 133 mile round trip made by Dr. Peck, Springfield Hospital’s chief pharmacist.

Friday, Jan. 29: State replaces its monitors

With the Gifford Medical doses in hand, Springfield Hospital went ahead with its Friday clinic. Then, later that afternoon, the state arrived with two new monitors.

And according to several people on Facebook who had been unable to get their vaccine on Wednesday, they did so on Saturday.

Tuesday, Feb. 2: State claims hospital had more issues

Then, during the governor’s Covid-19 press conference on Tuesday, Feb. 2, when asked by Shawn Cunningham of The Telegraph about the Springfield Hospital situation, Health Commissioner Levine said, “a lot of things were turned up,” when the immunization staff did a site visit to the hospital after the initial problem with the monitors.

He continued: “Issues of storing the vaccine first in the freezer then in the refrigerator … we preferred it start out in the freezer. Issues with the refrigeration system and that is being replaced. Issues with the sensor and they actually now have a new device. … The hospital has been correcting its storage and management practices and monitoring.” However, he added, “Things weren’t all that awry there.”

The wrap: But were there issues?

According to Springfield Hospital, there were issues, but not necessarily the ones outlined by the state.

The hospital, according to Anna Smith, continues to use the monitors it used when the state device registered 9.1 degree celsius. The state replaced its own monitor with one Smith called definitely “an upgrade.” The new monitors upload “data to the Cloud and sending alerts in real time.”  And she said, “We are not replacing our monitors at all. There is no reason to believe our monitors are not working at all.”

But the original state monitor on the other hand “will now be used to monitor our offsite vaccine carrier system when we travel to do community clinics,” Smith said.

But what caused that state monitor to register slightly higher? In an email to The Telegraph, Ben Truman, public information officer for the state Health Department, wrote it could possibly be due “in part, to the frequent opening and closing of the refrigerator.”

As for freezing the vaccines, Anna Smith said that the hospital is prepared to do that, should the pharmacy receive frozen vaccines, which would more likely come directly from the manufacturer. So far, she said, the supply is coming directly from the state and are already thawed. The vaccines, according to the manufacturer, cannot be refrozen once thawed.

As for problems with the refrigerator that Levine referred to, she said, “I’m not aware of any problem with the refrigerator system. We continue to use the refrigerator we have. Nothing has changed except that we decided to get a second refrigerator,” to divide the doses and “minimize the risk” of a future problem. Smith did add however that the pharmacy has installed racks in refrigerator “that improve air flow” and “we are using our monitors in our refrigerators.”

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 40 years. Cynthia has worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland, and has won numerous state awards for her reporting. As an editor, she has overseen her staffs to win many awards for indepth coverage. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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