Shelby County Health Department Director Dr. Alisa Haushalter at an earlier briefing of the COVID-19 task force. (Screen capture)

UPDATE: Dr. Alisa Haushalter’s decision to resign as director of the Shelby County Health Department was made known Friday afternoon following her participation in the virtual Town Hall event reported upon for this story.

by Erica R. Williams — 

Days after the State of Tennessee stripped the Shelby County Health Department of vaccine distribution due to mishandling, the department’s director, Dr. Alisa Haushalter, addressed concerns of vaccine equity, access and the issues that led to the state’s investigation.

Dr. Alisa Haushalter

“We are in a global pandemic. There are, along the way, unfortunately errors that get made and lessons learned,” Haushalter said during a virtual town hall hosted by the United Way of the Mid-South’s and Women United on Thursday evening.

“As a leader, my responsibility first and foremost is to identify those errors, elevate those in a transparent way and work with those to correct them so that we can better serve this community.”

Haushalter’s comments came on the heels of Memphis City Council member Chase Carlisle’s call on Thursday for her resignation. He also wants her senior leadership staff to resign.

The Tennessee Department of Health launched an investigation over the weekend into the Shelby County Health Department (SCHD), concluding that the county wasted more than 2,400 doses within the month of February.

Lisa Piercey

State Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, who also served as a panelist during the town hall, revealed earlier in the week that the issues dated back to Feb. 3. Those issues, she said, included incidents of spoiled doses, an excessive vaccine inventory, insufficient record-keeping and a faulty process for managing soon-to-expire vaccines.

The extensive findings warrant a federal investigation, according to Piercey.

The latest numbers – reported by the state on February 22 – show that 30,250 or three percent of Shelby County’s population had received both doses of the vaccination, with 105,338 residents having received the first dose.

Tennessee as a whole doesn’t fare much better. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11.2 percent of Tennessee’s overall population has received a single dose of the vaccine and only 5.4 percent received a second dose.

Piercey attributes Tennessee’s low number to vaccination equity, citing the state’s prioritizing of vulnerable populations based on race and age.

“Equity is one of the reasons we’re going slower because we want to make sure we’re getting it to people who need it the most,” Piercey said.

Haulshalter pointed out that – despite the state and county’s effort to ensure equity and access – there is room for growth.

“We can always continue to improve equity. And one of the ways to do that is to be in the community and have more opportunities for vaccinations in the community for people who may not have transportation.”

Other medical professionals participating in the town hall highlighted the distrust in the Black community relative to receiving vaccinations.

“The one thing that I hear is that people have concerns in how quickly the vaccine was developed,” said Dr. LaTonya Washington of the Bluff City Medical Society. “People want to make sure that it’s safe.”

Dr. Nathaniel Boutte

Dr. Nate Boutte, a pharmacist at a local Walgreens and one of the panelists, said he understands the hesitation but encourages patients to get vaccinated.

“Yes, the vaccine was made rather quickly, but we looked at all of the data and ensured patients that it is a safe and effective,” he said. “The biggest thing is reassuring them.”

Rev. Keith Norman

The Rev. Keith Norman, pastor of First Baptist Church-Broad and vice president of Government Affairs at Baptist Memorial Healthcare, also served as a panelist. He said providing his congregation with as much information as possible is key.

“We realize that information is extremely important because of the history of the things that have taken place in this country,” said Norman. “In order to gather again and return to some level of normalcy in the United States, we will need to inform people and allow them to become their own personal advocate.”

Dr. Barney Graham

Dr. Barney Graham of the National Institute of Health joined the town hall by video, emphasizing the importance of vaccinations.

“Within three to five years, probably everyone will have immunity to this virus to some level- and you’re either going to get in through infection or vaccination,” he said. “Infection has a one to two percent mortality and higher than that if you’re older and have risk factors; it also has a 20 percent chance of long-term effects.

“The vaccination has only three to six times out of a million chance of a mild allergic reaction that can be treated. Vaccines do two things: they protect the person and they protect the community.”

As local health and government officials work to get more residents vaccinated, Haushalter noted that although she and her team are no longer at the helm, they plan to support the city as needed.

“We worked cooperatively with the state to identify what would be the best strategy locally. We are in agreement that for the time being to move distribution to another facility is most ideal,” she said. “We will continue to work with the city and the Department of Health.”

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris has publicly said that he still has confidence in Haushalter’s leadership.

Asked during the town hall if her leadership at the health department causes a distraction, Haushalter referred to Harris.

“As far as whether my leadership is a distraction or if it is an addition really is a conversation between myself and the mayor.”

Wendi C. Thomas, editor and publisher at MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, moderated the session.

NOTE: The Shelby County Commission scheduled a special-called session talk about the matter on Friday afternoon.