A closer look: How two children received the COVID-19 vaccine in Memphis

Corinne S Kennedy Samuel Hardiman
Memphis Commercial Appeal

Two children were vaccinated Feb. 3 at a vaccine site run by the City of Memphis and University Clinical-Health, which is affiliated with the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. 

A mother was able to make appointments for herself as well as her 13-year-old and 8-year-old children at the Appling Road Emissions vaccination site, said Jon McCullers, the senior associate dean for clinical affairs at the College of Medicine at UTHSC who helps oversee UCH- and Memphis-run vaccination sites.

He said UCH officials have since been able to get in touch with the mother and verify the children suffered no negative effects. Both Pfizer and Moderna are currently conducting clinical trials on children, but no COVID-19 vaccines have yet been approved for use in kids. 

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The incident was reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, which medical professionals use to report any potential vaccine safety issues, such as people being improperly vaccinated or allergic reactions to vaccines.

The child vaccinations were first made public last month by State Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey when she publicly addressed a series of vaccine management issues that had occurred in Shelby County. The other problems outlined by Piercey, including the expiration and discarding of 2,510 vaccine doses, happened under the supervision of the Shelby County Health Department. 

McCullers said he did not think it was useful to assign blame for the incident at the Appling site or with the county's vaccine troubles, generally. He added he thought of the child vaccinations in particular as a failure of the system, rather than the failure of an individual. 

“With efforts this big and this quickly thrown together you always expect that you’re going to have some problems and some issues,” he said. “The system-thinking approach is to not blame any individual but to say, ‘How did the system fail that allowed a mistake to be made by an individual or a group?’”

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With the case of the children being vaccinated, he said there were two primary issues identified through conversations with the children’s mother and workers at the vaccine site.

The children’s mother was able to make vaccine appointments for each of them without putting in their birthdates. When she showed up to the vaccine site, the children had appointments and the paperwork was filled out, so the vaccine site — a volunteer medical professional — vaccinated them, despite having some reservations. 

“She got to the person giving the vaccines. And that person thought it was a little odd but mom had all the paperwork in order,” he said. “So the person said, ‘Well, I suppose I’m supposed to give the vaccine,’ and did.” 

McCullers said the matter came to the attention of UCH officials about a week later, when vaccine site workers notified the site supervisor, who then notified McCullers about the child vaccinations. 

To ensure it doesn’t happen again, McCullers said vaccine site workers and volunteers are now supposed to ask for proof of age when someone arrives at a vaccine site, daily meetings are held for those working at sites to go over who is eligible to receive vaccines and everyone is instructed to alert the vaccine site supervisor if they are unsure, for any reason, if a vaccine should be given out.     

Corinne Kennedy covers economic development, soccer and COVID-19's impact on hospitals for The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached via email at Corinne.Kennedy@CommercialAppeal.com or at 901-297-3245.