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Millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine thrown out as demand slows

Part of the problem is the high number of doses per vial and not enough demand to use them all before they expire

O'FALLON, Ill. — From hard to find, to millions wasted.

New information from the CDC obtained by NBC News reveals the U.S. has wasted more than 15 million doses of the COVID vaccine since March.

The NBC News investigation found the U.S. has wasted more doses than several countries have given out.

At the same time, in some cases, it turns out wasting vaccine is the only way to get some people the shot. 

Along with all of the orders she sends out, pharmacist and pharmacy owner Jackie Howell also collects a few, too. 

"These are my use COVID vials," Howell said from her Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy in O'Fallon, Illinois. "Some of them are empty, so of them are not."  

Since April, Howell has administered approximately 300 COVID vaccines from her pharmacy. But lately, one shot given often means several more wasted. 

"The problem is people don't want them right now," Howell said. 

The COVID vaccines come in vials of 10 to 15 doses. And once a vial is opened it has to be used in six to 12 hours depending on the manufacturer. 

"I'm just not busy enough to go through 15 doses in a day," said Howell, who also doesn't want to not open a vial to give someone who wants it a vaccine.  

"We don't want to run them off. Maybe they never get the shot," she said. "So we go ahead, we open it and we hope other people come in before it goes bad."

Which often doesn't happen, Howell said. 

Across the country, the waste is adding up.

An NBC News investigation found since March, more than 15 million doses have been discarded - according to new government data obtained by NBC.

5 On Your Side's I-Team found in Illinois nearly 200,000 have gone to waste and in Missouri more than 80,000 — both less than the national average of 2% wastage.

In fact, the U.S. has successfully given out more than 438 million COVID vaccines. 

And in an email to NBC, CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said the share of COVID vaccines wasted “remains extremely low...as access to COVID-19 vaccine has increased, it is important for providers to not miss any opportunity to vaccinate every eligible person... even if it may increase the likelihood of leaving unused doses in a vial.”

"We first started and it was horrible, it felt really bad not giving every shot away. But now I'm just happy to get a shot in someone's arm," Howell said. 

Because like too many, Howell knows the risks of getting the virus instead. She lost her brother-in-law to COVID. 

"So for me, it's personal. I want everyone to get out there and get their shot." 

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