CHICAGO (CBS) – In spring 2021, an ad appeared on Craigslist. Someone from Winnetka was selling two empty COVID-19 vaccine vials to keep as a memento of the pandemic -- $35 for the pair. One Moderna vial and one Pfizer vial appeared in the accompanying picture.
The CBS 2 Investigators responded to the ad, contacted the seller, and purchased the vials at a public park near the Chicago lakefront. Our undercover cameras captured the exchange.
The man who showed up with the vials in hand inside a plastic bag told a CBS 2 producer he worked at the pharmacy, motioning to the hospital across the street from the park.
In that initial, we discovered the man, John (Jia) Li did work in a pharmacy, but at a hospital a couple of miles to the north, Thorek Memorial Hospital. He was the Director of Pharmacy there.
Now, two and a half years later, we know more about the steps hospital administrators took immediately after we brought the vaccine vials sale to their attention and a state investigation was launched.
Public records revelations
After the purchase in the park, we filed a public records request with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, one federal agency that oversees hospitals.
The records we received in 2023 reveal state investigators with the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) toured Thorek on April 26, 2021 after someone filed a complaint, reporting "a Media investigative team was able to buy empty vaccine vials off of Craigslist from a pharmacist who works at a local hospital."
The complaint contained in the Division of Health Care Facilities and Programs Investigation Narrative Report goes on to state "His ability to 'pocket' empty vials calls into question, the security of the vials at the locations they are being administered."
The narrative contains a timeline of the investigation that followed.
At 9:10 a.m., investigators found the pharmacy entrance is "kept locked, and a key card is required to enter…"
At 9:30 a.m., investigators interviewed E#4, who works in the pharmacy. E#4 described how the pharmacy prepares doses for the COVID vaccination clinic that saw, at the time, about 50 people a day. He told investigators the vials never leave the pharmacy, only the prepared syringes do.
E#4 described a log that tracks number of vials used per day, but the log does not track disposal of the vials. "One time, I was asked by our boss (Director of Pharmacy – E #5) to give the vials to him for disposal." he told investigators, and added, "I think he used the yellow bin, but I never watched."
According to the narrative, E#4 and three others in the pharmacy on April 26, 2021, described the disposal procedure as dropping empty vials into a special yellow sharps bin that would be later picked up by a medical waste disposal company.
Investigators noted in their report, "The recommended guidance suggests the disposal of COVID-19 vaccine related wastes should: … Empty vials. The Department of Defense has recommended that all vial waste be captured in sharps containers to mitigate potential diversion and illicit intent."
At 11:55 a.m., state health investigators reported speaking with E#1 in the administrative office, who described CBS 2 News calling the office on April 22, 2021, asking "what the process for disposing of vaccine vials was."
E#1 told investigators that the hospital's leadership team immediately met following that call to discuss next steps. When the pharmacy was called to find out the disposal practice, the Pharmacy Director, John Li, self-reported he sold the vials on Craigslist. When Li came into work the next day on Friday, April 23, 2021 he was "suspended and sent home."
E#1 told investigators that a new policy was put into place on April 24, 2021, requiring two pharmacy staff to witness the disposal of empty vials: "I didn't feel that was enough to ensure compliance, so starting today (4/26/2021), we have created an inventory log for vials received and distributed, that needs to be signed by a pharmacy member and a Nursing Supervisor. The disposal process will also require a nursing and pharmacy signature verifying the destruction of the vial, prior to disposal."
By 1:30 p.m. on April 26, 2021, E#1 presented the new policy "COVID-19 Vaccine Inventory and Disposal." In addition to the pharmacy and nursing signatures needed, the policy called for vials to be "crushed with a rubber mallet and disposed of in the hazardous waste receptacle."
The state investigation turned up no health risk to patients as a result of Li selling the vials on Craigslist. But it did substantiate that he did sell them on Craigslist and as a result, the hospital changed policies immediately to prevent a reoccurrence.
Al Carter reviewed the state investigative records.
"I feel this is kind of like overkill, but you kind of need it with the situation that occurred at their pharmacy," he said.
Carter is the Executive Director of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.
He has a bigger issue with what happened to the hospital's Director of Pharmacy John Li.
"He should have been terminated," Carter said. "Pharmacists have a responsibility to provide quality health care and to protect the health care of the citizens of the state of Illinois, and so what he did was the opposite of that."
Again, the investigation records reveal no harm to any hospital patients.
Li's state pharmacy license remains unblemished. It's still listed as Active with no discipinary action noted. A spokesperson with the agency that oversees licensing, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulations, said only a "termination" would show up as a disciplinary action, after a pharmacy board hearing.
Li's name continues to show up on federal pharmacy hospital licensing records as the Director of Pharmacy at Thorek and his name remains on a hospital pharmacy office voicemail.
We asked hospital administrators for comment multiple times on the new policies put into place after the CBS 2 Investigation and the status of John Li but have yet to receive a response.
We also reached out to Li via his office and personal phones. He did not respond.
Homeland Security tested and found vaccine residue in the vials sold to CBS 2, but did not file any criminal charges against Li. The department also tells us it never another had another case like this one in the years since.
Overseas, however, it's a different story.
In England, a security guard at a vaccine site was arrested in 2021 for stealing dozens of empty COVID vaccine vials and then selling them on eBay. He pled guilty to fraud by false representation and got sentenced to a year in jail.
The Times of Israel reported two Israelis were detained that same year on suspicion of negligent care with medication and theft for selling at least 9 used COVID vaccine vials.
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