Inquiry into vax failure

Southern DHB officials stressed the vaccinations concerned posed no health risk but might mean...
Southern DHB officials stressed the vaccinations concerned posed no health risk but might mean recipients had a lower level of protection against Covid-19 than they had believed. Photo: Getty Images

An independent investigator will be appointed to ascertain how 1571 people were given Covid-19 vaccinations from a Queenstown provider which may not have provided any protection against the disease.

Engage Safety last night revealed itself as the vaccination provider which unwittingly administered hundreds of vaccinations which had been compromised by an issue with the ultra-cold temperatures the Pfizer vaccine has to be stored at.

Southern District Health Board officials stressed the vaccinations concerned posed no health risk but might mean recipients had a lower level of protection against Covid-19 than they had believed.

Engage Safety director Debbie Swain-Rewi apologised to those affected, and said the issue was detected during an audit last week.

"I want to say how very sorry I am for the inconvenience and upset caused to all the people affected by this.

"I have a long history in healthcare in the Queenstown Lakes area ... this issue has never happened before and I am fully supporting the SDHB’s investigation into the matter."

Today Ministry of Health director of public health Dr Caroline McElnay said at the 1pm Covid briefing that it was a cold chain issue.

The vaccine cold chain needed to be maintained to make sure it was kept at the correct temperature, she said.

She said it was unfortunate it happened, and apologised to the individuals who were vaccinated.

Affected people received their shots in various locations in Queenstown Lakes and Central Otago, between December 1 and January 28.

SDHB chief executive Chris Fleming said the vast majority of affected people were Queenstown residents, but a small number of people from elsewhere in New Zealand, including some Aucklanders, were believed to have been involved.

"The area affected is predominantly Kingston, Glenorchy, up to Wanaka and across to Cromwell but we do acknowledge that there are a small number of people who will have received vaccinations during the relevant times who did not live in those geographic areas, and we will be contacting each and every one of those."

Queenstown Airport chief executive Glen Sowry said that it hired Engage Safety to provide a pop-up clinic for "the airport community" and those vaccinated included operational and office staff.

"We do not know the number impacted but expect it could be up to half of the 450 people vaccinated on site during the pop-up clinic."

Hilton Queenstown also booked Engage Safety to run a vaccination clinic for itself and other businesses.

General manager Chris Ehmann estimated between 100 and 150 received the affected vaccine, including hotel staff.

Among those vaccinated at the Hilton were Martin Cheifetz, his wife and daughter, who worked there last year prior to moving to Auckland to study.

Mr Cheifetz said his daughter had tested positive for Covid a fortnight ago, and she had believed she had contracted it during O Week.

Mr Cheifetz said he felt let down by yesterday’s news.

"I suppose you get a vaccine so you feel confident that you’re protected and, obviously, I haven’t been or potentially haven’t been, so I suppose I’m disappointed."

SDHB medical officer of health Dr Susan Jack was confident there were no problems with vaccines delivered by Engage Safety after January 28 due to changes to procedures.

GP clinics closely monitor the temperature of vaccines in cold storage and staff are alerted via an app if there is an issue.

Mr Fleming said different providers had different ways of monitoring temperatures, and one reason for an independent inquiry was so that all vaccinators could learn from the issues which had affected Engage Safety.

Dr Jack said most of the affected vaccinations were boosters, but some were primary and secondary doses.

"The vaccinations are unlikely to be effective ... we have crossmatched recipients with the affected vaccine batches and we are currently contacting everyone."

There are 205 active cases of Covid-19 in Central Otago. Queenstown Lakes is one of the main Covid-19 hot spots in the present outbreak, and as of last night had 1535 active cases.

Mr Fleming said Engage Safety had stopped providing vaccinations until the investigation was completed, and SDHB staff had worked to determine who had received the problematic vaccine and notify them.

Anyone with concerns would be able to have a fully funded consultation with a GP, he said.

Mr Fleming confirmed the investigation into the incident would be an independent one but said who would do it and their terms of reference would not be confirmed until after all affected people had been contacted.

Queenstown Lakes Mayor Jim Boult said while the incident was unfortunate and meant a high degree of anxiety for those involved, he was grateful the SDHB had been upfront and taken responsibility for it.

There are 23,894 new community cases of Covid-19 to announce today including 914 in the South - the highest daily number in the area reported so far.