Stanford Medicine mistakenly vaccinated non-clinical affiliates over weekend

Dec. 29, 2020, 9:13 p.m.

Non-clinical and non-frontline staff and researchers were able to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Stanford Hospital this weekend due to lack of eligibility verification and after miscommunication that there was an apparent “excess” of vaccines, according to Stanford Medicine affiliates.

The misstep is yet another flashpoint in Stanford Medicine’s controversial vaccine rollout. A week ago, Stanford Medicine faced criticism regarding its vaccine distribution process after passing over front-line residents and fellows in the first wave. Leadership has since apologized and revised the distribution plan to prioritize front-line workers. 

On Saturday and Sunday, Stanford Medicine offered vaccine doses at the Stanford Hospital atrium through walk-in appointments. These availabilities were intended only for clinical staff due to an apparent low number of vaccination appointments over the weekend, according to four Stanford Medicine researchers and faculty who either saw the situation first-hand or personally knew someone who had been vaccinated early.

But at least some non-clinical staff received the vaccine, though it’s unclear how many.

Only front-line providers and healthcare workers in high-acuity settings were officially allocated the vaccine between Dec. 17 and Monday. Non-clinical affiliates are set to be vaccinated from Jan. 8 onwards, only after all hospital, ambulatory and other clinical staff had already received theirs, according to Stanford Medicine’s vaccine dashboard.

Stanford Health Care spokesperson Julie Greicius wrote in a statement to The Daily that Stanford Medicine was “disappointed to learn of false information circulating regarding vaccine availability.” Stanford Medicine is administering vaccines to patient-facing health care workers “by invitation only,” with notifications sent through the MyHealth system and department leaders.

“We recognize that ensuring an ethical and equitable vaccine distribution process depends on the commitment of vaccine recipients, as well as our administration,” Greicius wrote. She declined to comment on how many non-clinical staff had been vaccinated this weekend.

Affiliates shared information that Stanford Medicine had an “excess” supply of vaccinations over email lists and social media, accompanied by claims that non-clinical affiliates — including faculty and students — could walk in and receive vaccines.

Associate professor of pathology and genetics Stephen Montgomery, who is a non-clinical genetics researcher in the School of Medicine, received the vaccine on Sunday. He said he was made aware of the vaccine excess based on an email sent to a developmental biology faculty mailing list. 

Montgomery said he was under the impression that they thawed more vials than expected due to the fewer individuals being vaccinated over the holidays, only later discovering the information about an excess was incorrect.

“We were just notified through word of mouth that the Pfizer COVID19 vaccine is available for non-clinical staff, apparently they had an excess of it,” the developmental biology department email obtained by The Daily read. “You need to enter through the atrium of the New Stanford Hospital. They’re open until 11pm tonight and open at 7am tomorrow. No special authorization was needed.”

The email was later forwarded to the genetics department mailing list, with an additional message reading that “there [was] excess vaccine and students, postdocs and faculty and staff are able to get vaccinated.” Genetics professor Gavin Sherlock said that the information about walk-in vaccinations was spread by word of mouth, not by leadership.

And according to fifth-year M.D.-Ph.D. student Maria Filsinger Interrante, many others also found out about the walk-in appointments through non-patient-facing people posting on Twitter and other social media platforms that they had gotten vaccinated.

Later, hospital leadership sent out an enterprise-wide email confirming that doses were not intended for non-clinical staff. The email sent by leadership stated, “Currently, Stanford Medicine is administering vaccines to patient-facing health care workers, and we want to reiterate that vaccinations are by invitation-only.” Interrante added that Stanford Medicine had suggested in the email that doses given to non-clinical or non-patient-facing staff were likely mistakes.

The problem was compounded at vaccine distribution sites. Though these walk-in appointments were meant for frontline and essential staff, the vaccine distribution site did not verify eligibility and instead relied on the honor system, only checking to see if the people coming in had a Stanford Medicine badge, according to Interrante. 

First-year genetics Ph.D. student Usman Enam, who was present at the weekend vaccinations (but did not get vaccinated), said the person at the check-in told him they weren’t explicitly offering vaccines for non-clinical staff but that they “weren’t turning anyone affiliated to Stanford Med away.” 

Stanford Medicine on Sunday later started verifying people hoping to get vaccinated “in response to this influx of people who got vaccinated who were not supposed to be vaccinated,” Interrante said. Greicius confirmed that “on Sunday, many individuals were turned away because they did not meet the necessary criteria.”

The mistaken vaccinations over the weekend are not without consequences, affiliates said. Interrante explained that she was concerned that this spread of misinformation would create a vaccine shortage for COVID-19 patient-facing workers.

Biology associate professor Ashby Morrison told The Daily that the mistaken vaccinations were in violation of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and asked for more transparency from Stanford Medicine. CDC guidelines indicate that healthcare personnel and long term care facility residents are to be prioritized in phase 1a and essential workers such as the education sector — where faculty and students in academia likely fall — are to be prioritized in phase 2b. 

Greicius wrote regarding the invitation-only allocation approach, “This equitable process follows the distribution and accounting guidelines of the California Department of Public Health and will enable us to vaccinate everyone in the Stanford Medicine community.” 

Sherlock stated that the situation “appears to have been due to a shortcoming in the screening process, coupled with word traveling fast that people could walk in and get the vaccine.”

“I believe those that got the vaccine believed that there really were extra doses that needed to be used up, rather than anything nefarious,” he added.

Contact Esha Dhawan at edhawan ‘at’ and Athena Xue at axue8 ‘at’

This article has been updated to clarify that the equitable process Julie Greicius refers to is the invitation-only vaccine allocation approach.

A previous version of this post inaccurately characterized Stanford Medicine’s administration of vaccines to patient-facing health care workers by “invitation only” as happening “moving forward.” The post also inaccurately characterized its vaccine plan by invitation only as “revised.” This is already the stated practice, not a future measure.

Athena Xue is a desk editor for the Business, Science and Technology desk in News. She is a sophomore from Fremont, CA interested in studying biology and art practice, and she enjoys watching cute otter videos. Contact her at axue 'at' Dhawan '23 is the Vol. 260 Spotlight Editor and was previously a Vol. 258/259 desk editor for science & technology news. She is a human biology major and creative writing minor from Atlanta, GA. Contact her at edhawan 'at'

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