Amid assurances from major Southern California medical centers that only frontline health workers are receiving early COVID-19 vaccines, a second community hospital has apparently strayed from federal guidelines and inoculated an employee’s relative.

Officials at Southern California Hospital in Culver City, like Redlands Community Hospital previously, acknowledge they reached out to non-hospital workers when they found themselves with extra Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine doses that would have otherwise expired. They insist, however, that first-responders were targeted for the extra doses at the 420-bed facility.

Elsewhere, officials at other medical facilities throughout the region have indicated they are strictly heeding Centers for Disease Control recommendations to only offer the vaccine and extra doses found in some vials to frontline workers.

“We have been really holding the line and making sure frontline workers go first,” said Krist Azizian, chief pharmacy officer for Keck Medicine of USC, which has about 9,000 workers. “We do not offer it to family members of our staff.”

Time is of the essence in distributing the Pfizer vaccine, which must be stored at a temperature of -94 degrees Fahrenheit and administered soon after thawing, or it goes to waste.

Staff members decline vaccine

A former national leader in emergency management, who asked not to be identified, said this week that, just before Christmas, a relative who works at Southern California Hospital invited members of her family to receive Pfizer vaccines at the facility.

The woman provided the Southern California News Group with text messages from the hospital showing her appointment and subsequent inoculation. She is scheduled to return to the hospital in January to receive a second dose of the vaccine.

“The hospital had planned on vaccinating all of their employees, but a large number of their staff declined and they were sitting on a lot of thawed vaccines,” the woman said, explaining what staff at the hospital told her. “They offered police officers, firefighters and first-responders to get vaccinated and also told employees they could invite four family members.”

Soon, the hospital was overwhelmed by those clamoring for the extra Pfizer doses, forcing the facility to stop offering vaccines to relatives and instead focus largely on first-responders, the woman said.

No time for new distribution plan

The woman praised Southern California Hospital for taking quick action to ensure the vaccines were not wasted.

“Faced with thawed, expiring vaccines that can’t be refrozen, and no contingency plan, doctors made the choice to vaccinate people they could,” she said. “That’s what doctors do, save lives. That’s what happens in disasters. Situations are constantly in flux and people have to make command decisions to save as many lives as possible within their current capacity. Hospitals are overwhelmed saving lives and don’t have time to stop and create a new vaccine distribution plan for a small amount of vaccine that is about to expire.”

Southern California Hospital denies that relatives of employees were invited to the facility to receive the Pfizer vaccine, spokeswoman Laura M. Gilbert said.

After hospital staff members picked up frozen vaccines from a distribution center last week, they quickly realized the amount of doses exceeded the number of employees at the facility, she said

“The excess could not be returned to the distribution center,” she said in an email. “Instructions provided with the vaccine indicated that the vaccine has a shelf life of five days when removed from the approved freezer. The distribution center indicated the vaccine was not to be stored in dry ice or transport freezers. All the vaccine had to be used within five days or go to waste.”

After inoculating all hospital employees who requested the vaccine, staff contacted physicians who treat patients at the facility, as well as local first-responders, including police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians to inform them of the vaccine’s availability, according to Gilbert. Additionally, some public service workers were also vaccinated.

“This decisive action ensured we achieved our goal of vaccinating all frontline staff as quickly as possible, and prevented the waste of valuable vaccine,” Gilbert said.

‘A reasonable explanation’

It appears Southern California Hospital handled the situation properly, said Andrew Noymer, an associate professor of public health at UC Irvine.

“That seems like a reasonable explanation,” he added. “If they truly received more vaccinations than they can use, it’s not really their fault.”

However, Dr. David D. Lo, senior associate dean of research at the UC Riverside School of Medicine, disagrees.

“They don’t exactly deny that staff family members were vaccinated, only that they weren’t invited,” he said. “Also, it gave no indication that they had actually planned out their vaccination strategy.”

In a separate incident, a 33-year-old Riverside woman recently bragged on Facebook she was vaccinated Dec. 20 at Redlands Community Hospital because her husband’s aunt, who works at the facility, had some extra doses that were set to expire.

“Science is basically my religion, so this was a big deal for me,” the woman said in a Facebook post.

Redlands Community said in a statement the extra doses were administered to non-frontline healthcare workers so the valuable vaccine would not be thrown away.

However, the hospital didn’t explain how the woman, who works for Disney and apparently isn’t a medical worker, was able to obtain the vaccine.

Smooth rollout for others

Many Southern California hospitals have been planning and preparing for months to distribute COVID-19 vaccines, along with excess doses.

At Keck Hospital of USC and the affiliated USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, about 8,825 doses of the Pfizer vaccine are being provided to about 3,300 doctors, nurses and support staff, Azizian said. Nearly 6,000 remaining employees are awaiting or in the process of being scheduled for vaccinations.

Keck Medicine, which hasn’t had many no-shows, provides vaccines to about 400 frontline workers daily, spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said. About 15 percent of the vaccines already delivered to Keck Medicine have contained an extra dose, helping to speed and maximize the inoculation process, Azizian said.

“We are able to vaccinate more individuals to get to our goal hopefully faster,” he added.

Officials at UCLA Health, Long Beach Memorial Hospital and Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley also said the extra Pfizer doses are being distributed to staff who regularly come into contact and treat COVID-19 patients

Loma Linda University Medical Center is using the extra doses to systematically move through its distribution plan developed well in advance of receiving the vaccines, said Dr. April Wilson, a preventative medicine specialist.

“The plan prioritized those caring for patients with COVID-19 and within that group, those at highest risk by age, then moved to progressively younger age groups,” she said. “We then offered the vaccine to those within inpatient units and then direct patient care. The extra doses enabled us to make it farther down the priority list “

At UCI Medical Center, nearly 6,000 employees have received vaccines through scheduled appointments or visits from staff to their workplace to administer doses, spokesman John Murray said.

“This approach ensures that doses are or will be available to all UCI Health employees who want them and that doses are only offered to those who work for our health system,” he said. “Fortunately, the additional doses per vial of the Pfizer vaccine have allowed us to vaccinate even more of our staff faster than we’d expected.”

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