Health officials at Aurora Medical Center in Grafton, Wisconsin, announced on Thursday that a now-fired employee had confessed to deliberately removing 57 vials of the COVID-19 vaccine from a refrigerator, and later returning them.
Those doses, which may have been weakened outside refrigeration, were given to 57 people before the error became apparent, officials said.
Investigators have not yet named the former employee who removed the vials, which contained nearly 500 doses (that they were only given to 57 people is coincidental, hospital officials said). The people who took the affected doses have been notified, and there is no indication that they were harmed, hospital officials said in a Thursday press conference.
The Aurora Health Care Medical Group is communicating with the vaccine manufacturer Moderna to determine the effect the lack of refrigeration might have on the vaccines’ potency.
The hospital system in the COVID-wracked state first revealed that 57 vials of the Moderna vaccine had been left out of a refrigerator for more than 12 hours on Dec. 26. At the time, Aurora described it as the product of “unintended human error,” indicating an employee had removed the vaccines to reach something else in the fridge.
But on Wednesday evening, the hospital changed its story, indicating that a further review pointed to “intentional” destruction and that the employee was fired. The employee, whom hospital officials described on Thursday as a pharmacist, allegedly admitted on Wednesday to intentionally leaving the vials out of the refrigerator.
The Moderna vaccine can only survive for up to 12 hours outside of refrigeration, though it does not need the same level of cold storage as the Pfizer vaccine.
The allegation of deliberate sabotage comes as Wisconsin remains deep in the throes of a catastrophic COVID-19 outbreak—and after state and federal officials expressed fears that vandals and anti-vaxxers might target doses.
Local police, as well as the FBI and Food and Drug Administration, reportedly assisted with the investigation. The FDA and FBI declined to comment on their involvement.