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Report: Oklahoma is the worst state in the nation for wasted COVID vaccine doses

Sgt. Anthony Jones / Oklahoma National Guard
Members of the Oklahoma National Guard transport boxes containing doses of COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 15, 2020.

Federal data show Oklahoma ranks last among the 50 states for percentage of COVID-19 vaccine doses being wasted, an NBC News report found.

"Two states also discarded more than a quarter of their doses: Oklahoma, which tossed 28 percent of the nearly 4 million doses it received, and Alaska, which threw away almost 27 percent of its 1 million doses," NBC reported, citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Oklahoma's 28% waste rate is more than double the national average of 11%, the report said.

An Oklahoma State Department of Health spokesperson confirmed the report's accuracy.

"According to our immunizations department most of the wastage is due to vials being reconstituted for one patient and then it expires before another patient shows up or vaccine going beyond the use date," OSDH public information officer Erica Rankin said in an email. "In an effort to vaccinate everyone who wants a vaccine, it is necessary to open new vials of vaccine, that are multi-dose, which causes the rest of the vial to waste."

Asked what factors may have contributed to Oklahoma's dead-last national ranking, OSDH did not provide an explanation or speculate as to the reason, apart from suggesting waste is being driven by vaccine efforts in rural areas of the state. The issue of discarded open vials is not a problem unique to Oklahoma.

Rankin provided a list of efforts the department is taking to minimize vaccine waste, including ensuring vaccines are being properly stored and hosting monthly educational sessions with providers who administer vaccines.

During a virtual press briefing of the Healthier Oklahoma Coalition Tuesday, several health professionals weighed in on the matter.

"It's a little bit about inventory management — how many did we request versus how many we were able to successfully administer," said Dr. David Kendrick, chair of medical informatics at the University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine.

"This is maybe one of those situations where our eyes were bigger than our stomach, so to speak, and we were more optimistic about how many we could get administered," Kendrick said.

"It's a troublesome statistic," said Dr. Jean Hausheer, past-president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association.

Dr. George Diaz, division chief of medicine at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Wa., where the first COVID-19 case in the U.S. was identified, said the waste was unfortunate.

"Correlating the vaccines that were wasted versus the death rate overall — when you look at the overall death rate for Oklahoma, it's near the top for the entire country," Diaz said. "So those wasted vaccines administered would have saved lives, and that's really the tragedy of this."

Dr. Aaron Wendelboe, a professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Public Health and former state epidemiologist of Oklahoma, noted Oklahoma is one of the ten worst states in the country in terms of COVID death rate over the course of the pandemic. A previous NBC report identified Oklahoma as the state with the highest COVID death rate in the country in 2021.

As of Thursday, Oklahoma ranked 37th nationally for percent of the population fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the CDC. According to the state, as of May 31, COVID was known to have killed at least 16,127 Oklahomans since the pandemic began.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.