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Video shows COVID-19 vaccines being thrown into a dumpster at a Tennessee health department

"After thorough investigation, you were not able to detect any criminal activity," said District Attorney General Allen.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Video of what appears to be a box of COVID-19 vaccine being thrown into a dumpster at the Knox County Health Department was at the center of an investigation into what happened to those doses. 10News obtained that video on Friday, and you can watch it below.

The Office of the District Attorney General, Charme P. Allen, announced Thursday that no criminal activity was found during the investigation into a box of 975 Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine doses that were reported missing February in Knox County.

According to the Knoxville Police Department's investigation into the matter, it appears the box of vaccine was accidentally thrown away after being mistaken for a box of dry ice as the Knox County Health Department initially suspected.

"We are pleased that the KPD investigation confirmed what our internal investigation previously demonstrated -- there was no criminal activity related to the loss of vaccine," said Senior Director and Public Health Officer Dr. Martha Buchanan. "KCHD remains committed to protecting the health of Knox County citizens and has implemented process changes through continuous quality improvement to ensure this won't happen again."

Credit: KCHD security video
A still image from a surveillance video shows what investigators believe is a Knox County Health Dept. employee accidentally throwing a box of Pfizer vaccine into a dumpster.

KCHD said at the time they received two different shipments from Pfizer -- one containing 975 vaccine doses, and another containing dry ice to preserve the vaccine -- saying that both boxes looked largely identical. The box containing vaccine is tracked by Pfizer using GPS and temperature data.

KPD investigators first spoke with the KCHD employees who initially reported the incident to supervisors, saying the employees told them they threw away a box they thought at the time to be dry ice into a dumpster on January 29.

It was not until February 4 that employees realized the department did not have the second-dose Pfizer shots it was expecting, and the alarm was raised.

After reviewing security footage, officers said they could see one of the employees throwing a box into the dumpster around 10:30 a.m. on January 29. Footage from a few days later on February 1 showed a truck picking up the trash from the dumpster, which KPD said they could see what appeared to be the box going into the truck.

10News obtained the security footage used in the investigation. It includes video of a Fed Ex driver delivering a large white box, timestamped on January 29, presumably containing the vaccine. The footage goes on to show a very similar box being thrown into the dumpster, though that portion of the video does not show time and date information.

Waste Management confirmed the truck belonged to them and that they had video that showed what appeared to be the box being dumped on site, but told investigators it would be "basically impossible" to recover the box and the vials at that point since it had been compacted.

Investigators then talked with FedEx and Pfizer representatives, saying FedEx was able to provide paperwork and proof-of-delivery for the tracking number KCHD had for the box of vaccine. The state's vaccine management system also showed KCHD's receipt of the package containing the missing vials. 

After speaking with a Pfizer representative, KPD said they were provided temperature and tracking data from the box that began when the box of vaccine was being compacted, saying Pfizer's records matched up with Waste Management's records. 

GPS data for the missing box had reportedly not been available up through delivery, however KPD said the GPS on the box had been activated several times after it had been thrown away -- with the last known location being in the area of the Knoxville Solid Waste Management site off Baxter Avenue the same day the trash was picked up.

KPD concluded the vaccine had not been stolen, but was mistakenly thrown out as the employees said. 

In a letter, District Attorney General Allen said, "We have now concluded our review of the above referenced investigation. I have reviewed the entirety of your file and based upon your determination that after thorough investigation you were not able to detect any criminal activity, my office will be closing our case file and you may do the same."

Also, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs said that he is happy to learn about the findings of the investigation.

"I am happy to learn that KPD affirmed what I believed to be true: no criminal activity led to the loss of vaccine. Nevertheless, this shouldn’t have happened. Since then, the Health Department has implemented corrective measures to ensure that it won’t. The Pugh & Co. audit will also look into the matter to see if there are other steps we might need to take."

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To help perhaps shed light on the case, the Knoxville Police Department and an accounting firm have joined in the effort to find out what happened to a box of 975 virus vaccines determined last week to be missing in Knox County.

Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, asked KPD to see what its investigators could learn, according to an announcement Monday by Mayor Glenn Jacobs' office.

Also, the Pugh accounting firm will look into the matter.

KPD's review will be to ensure no crime was involved, and it will then forward whatever it learns to Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen.

Pugh will look at accounting controls and internal steps taken or not taken in handling the material, county officials said.

Jacobs told 10News on Friday he doesn't think "foul play" is involved, and he discounted the chance that the vaccines could have been taken and sold privately.

On Wednesday, the Health Department announced it couldn't account for a shipment of the Pfizer vaccine it had supposedly received.

Spanish Version: ¿Qué sucedió con la caja de vacunas Pfizer en el Condado de Knox? KPD y firma de auditoría investigarán el caso

An employee may have inadvertently tossed it, thinking it contained only dry ice, Buchanan said.

There's also some debate about whether it actually ever was received. Pfizer told WBIR last week its records show the shipment got to the Health Department.

"Nothing so far has indicated malicious intent or criminal activity and we want to confirm that,” Jacobs said in a statement Monday. “We do know a serious mistake was made because of a series of process issues at the Health Department. We need to fully understand every aspect of the mistake to be sure it won’t happen again.”

Buchanan said in Monday's release she was happy to have a "third-party" review.

"We are eager to fully cooperate with the investigations. As we learn more about what exactly occurred, we will continue to implement process improvements and stronger safeguards.”

According to the county, it could take several weeks or months for KPD and Pugh to finish their investigation and whatever it might yield.

The Tennessee Department of Health said last week it also was working with the county Health Department to investigate what it believes was "human error."


KCHD said last week it's changing its protocols for handling vaccines.

Moving forward, KCHD said two employees will greet every box of vaccine when it arrives and every shipping box, regardless of content, will be fully inspected before it is discarded. 

In addition, KCHD will create calendar reminders to advise when second doses should arrive and will check with the county's IT workers to ensure notification emails from the vaccine manufacturer are not being stopped by firewalls.

The first realization that there might be an issue with a box of vaccine doses came Thursday, Feb. 4, the Health Department said. 

After months of receiving and distributing the Moderna shot, it had begun to get shipments of Pfizer vaccine, which requires unique ultra-cold storage procedures involving dry ice. 

The first box of 975 Pfizer shots arrived approximately three weeks ago without any issues, the department said. For the first time in years, the department also received some dry ice to aid with the storage of the vaccine.

Eighteen days later, according to state plans, the state Department of Health directed Pfizer to send KCHD a second box of 975 shots designated for second doses. 

KCHD said it received a shipment notification for this second box, but "it contained an inaccurate/nonfunctioning tracking number." It said there was no confirmation of delivery, but a box of some kind did arrive. Sometime later, a differently designed box with only dry ice inside arrived as well. 

It was not until Feb. 4, when an employee realized the department did not have the second-dose Pfizer shots it was expecting, that the alarm was raised.

"KCHD immediately reached out to the Tennessee Department of Health to investigate," a health department spokesperson said.

Five days later, on Tuesday, Feb.  9, the state told KCHD the vaccines were shipped and delivered to the health department.

KCHD went public with news about the missing vaccine the following day.

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