While millions of COVID-19 vaccines are being administered across the country every day, a small number end up unused: either lost, damaged, or otherwise “wasted,” the term used by public health experts.
The numbers vary state to state. In New Hampshire 2,384 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been wasted as of March 10, a small fraction—0.69%—of the more than 343,000 doses received to date.
Of the wasted doses, state public health officials say 1,542 were lost due to broken vials or syringes. Another 724 shots expired and could no longer be used after being pulled out of freezers to thaw, while 118 doses have gone missing.
While New Hampshire’s rate of wasted vaccines is considered low by national experts, our current rate is considerably higher than many of our neighbors.
As of Wednesday, Vermont had reportedly logged 458 wasted doses, for a wastage rate of 0.2%. In Massachusetts, 1,493 doses have gone to waste, or 0.08%. Rhode Island’s wastage rate stands at 0.06% with 211 wasted doses, according to that state’s health department.
New Hampshire’s figures, which were provided to NHPR by the state Department of Health and Human Services, do not include vaccines administered at long-term care facilities through a partnership between the federal government and private pharmacy chains.
Some amount of vaccine wastage is likely inevitable: both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines need to be transported at ultra-low temperatures, and then once removed from freezers to thaw, need to be used within six hours. On top of that, vaccine administrators are often able to squeeze extra shots out of a vial, requiring last minute juggling of schedules and wait lists.
“When you look at the amount of things that can go wrong, whether you have a malfunction of a syringe, you have vaccine that is very fragile—our [National] Guardsmen and our volunteers are doing a tremendous job to make sure that every vaccine is used in an appropriate way,” said Perry Plummer, who is coordinating vaccine logistics for the state.
Vaccinations in New Hampshire are currently being administered at state-run locations overseen by the state National Guard, as well as at a handful of hospitals and Walgreens locations.
Though the CDC appears to require reporting of any wasted vaccines, many states, including Maine, have declined to release exact statistics. The CDC did not respond to a request for additional data.
Connecticut has only received reports of 10 wasted doses, a head-scratchingly small fraction of the more than 1.3 million doses the state has administered.
“I can only tell you what has been reported to us,” said a spokesperson for Connecticut’s Department of Health. “We have rigorous guidelines for our vaccine providers for ensuring doses aren’t wasted.”
Ohio recently reported a wastage rate of 0.11%, while Pennsylvania’s wastage rate, as of February 26, was 0.07%.
According to Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, about 2.6% of non-COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. are wasted on average, including routine childhood vaccines and shots for adults such as the seasonal influenza vaccine.
“Everyone is trying to make sure that every dose goes into the arm, with the goal, ultimately, to not waste one single drop,” he said.
Benjamin said while there have been scattered reports of lost COVID-19 doses due to malfunctioning freezers or batches left to expire, overall, states including New Hampshire with a wastage rate of 0.69% should be commended.
“Pat themselves on the back for a number that low, absolutely,” said Benjamin.