Health

Pharmacist Who Tried to Spoil COVID Vaccines Gets 3 Years of Prison

A Wisconsin pharmacist who aimed to ruin 500 doses of COVID vaccine last December has been sentenced to 3 years in prison, the Department of Justice announced.

Steven Brandenburg, who purposely removed the Moderna doses from refrigeration during two shifts, will have 3 years of supervised release after that, and will have to pay about $84,000 in restitution to his former employer Aurora Medical Center, DOJ said.

On Dec. 24 and Dec. 25, 2020, Brandenburg removed vaccines from a hospital fridge for 3 hours and 9 hours, respectively, according to court documents cited by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He then returned them to the fridge to be used in the hospital vaccine clinic the next day.

Most of the vaccines were discarded, but not before 57 people received a dose, many of whom were Brandenburg’s coworkers. While those doses are now believed to be effective — CDC states that a punctured Moderna vial can be left at room temperature for up to 12 hours — it was unclear at the time and led to anger and anxiety among recipients, according to the Journal Sentinel.

“By illegally tampering with these doses, Brandenburg threatened the health and safety of an entire community,” Robert Hughes, the special-agent-in-charge at the FBI’s Milwaukee field office, said in the DOJ statement. “Today’s sentencing sends a clear message to individuals who intentionally violate these laws that they will be vigorously prosecuted.”

Brandenburg was subsequently fired by his employer. In February, he pleaded guilty to two counts of “attempting to tamper with consumer products with reckless disregard for the risk that another person would be placed in danger of death or bodily injury,” according to the DOJ statement.

That plea agreement said Brandenburg was skeptical of vaccines in general and told his coworkers about those beliefs.

According to the Journal Sentinel, Brandenburg’s attorney Jason Baltz said his client’s actions resulted from the confluence of two traumas: being a healthcare worker during the pandemic, and his wife filing for divorce. Court documents also show that Brandenburg had brought a gun to work on multiple occasions, the paper reported.

Brandenburg gave a statement before being sentenced, saying that he felt “great shame” for his actions, accepting responsibility and apologizing to his coworkers, family, and community.

“I did not have the right to make this decision for them,” Brandenburg reportedly said. “I’m tormented by it daily.”

According to the Journal Sentinel, U.S. District Judge Brett Ludwig, who handed down the sentencing, said he went easy on Brandenburg because he had no prior criminal record, was sorry for his actions, and caused no physical harm.

“This was a serious, serious offense,” Ludwig said. “He threatened to impose defeat through the jaws of victory.”

  • Kristina Fiore leads MedPage’s enterprise & investigative reporting team. She’s been a medical journalist for more than a decade and her work has been recognized by Barlett & Steele, AHCJ, SABEW, and others. Send story tips to [email protected] Follow

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