Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has told the HSE to appoint an official to oversee the Beacon Hospital’s vaccine programme, after 20 teachers and staff from St Gerard’s School near Bray, Co Wicklow, were vaccinated there this week.
A HSE spokesman explained a senior official would work with the Beacon to ensure that on a day-to-day basis the standards set out by the HSE for the operation of the vaccination programme are maintained.
Mr Donnelly said the vaccination of teachers from St Gerard’s at the Beacon, significantly ahead of their place in the schedule, was “completely unacceptable” and “there is absolutely no defence of it whatsoever.”
He told RTÉ’s Six One there are “very clear protocols in place to avoid these things happening”.
However, he said stopping vaccinations at the Beacon the would be “cutting off our nose to spite our face” and “counterproductive”, and the priority is to vaccinate people as soon as doses arrive in the country.
He noted the Beacon was providing an important part of the Dublin area’s vaccination infrastructure “at their own cost”.
The private hospital in Sandyford, south Dublin, said the issue arose as there were 20 “leftover” vaccine doses on Tuesday evening.
Earlier, Mr Donnelly had tweeted: “No private school should have received vaccines from a private hospital. The protocols are crystal clear on having a backup list of people available from the priority cohorts. We are prioritising our most vulnerable right now, as it should be,” he tweeted.
Several other politicians as well as the chief executive of the HSE Paul Reid voiced frustration over the news.
The daughter of a cancer patient at the hospital said it was “extraordinary” that teachers from an unrelated school had received the spare doses.
Aoife Stokes, whose 64-year-old mother is in category four of the priority list – those currently being vaccinated – said she was “livid” when she read about the teachers being vaccinated.
Ms Stokes said it was “very hard to comprehend” how patients like her mother did not form part of a standby list for excess doses.
Her mother had received “no answers” about when she might receive the vaccine. To see people “much further down” the vaccination schedule receive shots ahead of her was “mind blowing” and “totally unfair”.
1,096 Health Service Executive (HSE) staff had received their vaccines on Tuesday in a vaccination centre run by the Beacon.
However, the hospital said there were more than 200 “no-shows”, as some HSE staff had been double booked to receive vaccines in the Aviva Stadium.
"Beacon Hospital immediately liaised with the HSE, and the majority of these excess vaccines were subsequently used for HSE staff who were redirected to Beacon Hospital throughout the afternoon," a hospital spokesman said.
By Tuesday evening 20 leftover vaccines had been drawn up and needed to be used within a very short period of time, the spokesman said.
There were "limitations" on who could receive the doses, as it was the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is not used in the vaccination of the over-70s.
“In keeping with the zero-wastage policy, a decision was made to administer the leftover vaccine to teachers who were in a position to get to the centre within the exceptionally short time frame required,” the spokesman said.
The vaccines were administered to teachers and staff working in St Gerard’s, a fee-paying school just outside Bray. The news was first reported in the Irish Daily Mail on Friday.
Prioritisation and sequencing
HSE chief executive Paul Reid said he “cannot condone” the vaccination of the teachers, ahead of their place in the schedule.
Mr Reid told Newstalk Breakfast it was extremely frustrating for the HSE when incidents like this occurred.
“We do want them to have backup lists as we don’t want vials wasted. But we do expect all services to stick with our prioritisation and sequencing,” he said.
“The vial certainly has to be used if they’re open, we all get that. But even the preparation for the day does need prioritisation on who you might have on standby and there are plenty of options, legitimately, around what can be done next,” he said.
In a statement, Beacon chief executive Michael Cullen said: "I recognise that the decision that was made was not in line with the sequencing guidelines in place from the HSE."
Mr Cullen said the decision “was made under time pressure and with a view to ensuring that the vaccine did not go to waste”.
“I sincerely apologise for the upset that this decision has caused and we are updating our approach to our backup list to ensure that this situation does not arise again,” he said.
Mr Cullen’s children attend St Gerard’s School. The hospital chief executive did not respond to queries from The Irish Times, asking if he played any direct role in the teachers being contacted to receive the excess vaccines.
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee on Friday expressed her frustration at the hospital’s actions.
There was very clear protocol in place on the use of vaccines and there should not have been a situation where a decision was taken to go outside that list, she told RTÉ Radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show.
This issue had been stressed multiple times, she said, and it was now up to the HSE to decide what happens to the Beacon Hospital.
The vaccination sequencing system was there for a reason, said the Minister. When people “start moving outside of that, people lose faith in the system itself. I’m frustrated to hear it’s happening still.”
Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane described the Beacon hospital’s actions as “outrageous” and “a breach of protocol that we were told all hospitals would be fully enforcing”.
In the Seanad, Labour Senator Rebecca Moynihan said it seems that “people are treating vaccines in the way in which some might treat all-Ireland tickets. It is about connections and who you know rather than priority and need.”
Ms Moynihan asked “if every single cleaner and retail worker in the Beacon was vaccinated when the hospital authorities decided to go 14km down the road to give vaccines to teachers at a private school”.
The priority groups currently receiving vaccines include people aged 70 and above, and the medically vulnerable at “very high risk” from Covid-19. This includes some people who are immunocompromised, cancer patients and those who have chronic kidney or respiratory diseases, among other conditions.
The vaccination of people who are very high risk is being run by hospitals, and progress has been slow due to issues identifying some people in this cohort.
Teachers are in the 11th priority group to receive vaccines under the rollout plan, ahead of those aged between 55 and 64.
The HSE has instructed vaccination centres to have a “standby list” on hand for any excess vaccine doses. The list should also adhere to the current sequencing of priority groups.
There has been a number of cases in recent weeks where non-frontline health workers, such as HSE finance staff, have received excess doses.
In early January, 16 family members of staff in the Coombe Hospital were vaccinated in the Dublin maternity hospital, prompting an independent investigation into the matter, which is ongoing.
Family members who received the excess doses included two children of the master of the maternity hospital, Prof Michael O’Connell.