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North Carolina health secretary Mandy Cohen speaks at a press conference in Raleigh on April 20, 2020. (screenshot UNCTV) North Carolina health secretary Mandy Cohen speaks at a press conference in Raleigh on April 20, 2020. (screenshot UNCTV)

North Carolina health secretary Mandy Cohen speaks at a press conference in Raleigh on April 20, 2020. (screenshot UNCTV)

Paul Specht
By Paul Specht January 26, 2021

NC health officials clarify number of spoiled COVID-19 vaccines

If Your Time is short

  • On Jan. 21, North Carolina Health Secretary Mandy Cohen said the number of spoiled vaccines is “very small ... in the tens.”
  • On Jan. 22, the health department clarified that the exact number of spoiled doses was 1,280 -- about 0.1% of the state's vaccine stock.
  • Health department officials said Cohen based her press conference comments on conversations she had with rollout leaders.

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."

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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

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.

Our Sources

Video of North Carolina Health Secretary Mandy Cohen’s press briefing on Jan. 21, 2021.

Email interview with SarahLewis Peel, communications manager for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Telephone interview with Chris Mackey, communications director for  the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Report by the World Health Organization, "Revising global indicative wastage rates: a WHO initiative for better planning and forecasting of vaccine supply need," published April 8, 2019.

Story by the Associated Press, "North Carolina health officials say 1,280 COVID doses wasted," Jan. 22, 2021.

Story by ProPublica, "How many vaccine shots go to waste? Several states aren’t counting," published Jan. 21, 2021.

Story by Reuters, "Wisconsin pharmacist arrested on charges of sabotaging COVID vaccine doses," posted Dec. 31, 2020.

Story by NPR, "Pharmacist who spoiled more than 500 vaccine doses said he thought they were 'unsafe,'" posted Jan. 4, 2021.

Story by the Columbus Dispatch, "Columbus COVID-19 vaccine provider mishandles, spoils 890 doses. Pharmacy board investigating," Jan. 21, 2021.

Stories by NBC News, "1,900 Covid vaccine doses ruined by loose freezer plug at Massachusetts VA hospital," posted Jan. 22, 2021; "Nearly 12,000 Moderna vaccines ruined en route to Michigan, health officials say," posted Jan. 19, 2021.

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More by Paul Specht

NC health officials clarify number of spoiled COVID-19 vaccines

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