Health Team

NC hospitals ready to store, distribute frozen coronavirus vaccine

Posted December 2, 2020 3:07 p.m. EST
Updated December 2, 2020 8:07 p.m. EST

— With the approval of the first coronavirus vaccine possibly a week away, hospitals across North Carolina are finalizing preparations to receive, store and distribute tens of thousands of doses.

Because Pfizer's vaccine candidate, which will be the first of several potential vaccines to be reviewed by a U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel, must be kept at -94 degrees Fahrenheit, hospitals have purchased ultra-cold freezers to store the vaccine.

"We've been planning on this for several weeks," said Chris Tart, vice president of professional services for Cape Fear Valley Health System in Fayetteville. "We have three freezers throughout the health system, and we've been planning how we're going to roll it out based on how many doses we get, how we stage it, where we're going to give the vaccine at and how we're going to administer it, as well as the follow-up plan for the subsequent doses based on which vaccine is released first."

Frontline health care workers will be the first people to get the vaccine, and Cape Fear Valley Health has 8,000 people in its six facilities across four counties.

"We don’t know how many doses we’re going to get yet. We anticipate we’ll be one of the first ones to get it because we do have the deep freezer capability, and the state’s already asked us those questions as they plan, as well as the CDC," Tart said.

The vaccine will be shipped via UPS or Federal Express from a Pfizer plant in Kalamazoo, Mich., in special coolers that can hold up to 5,000 doses on dry ice with GPS tracking devices to monitor the temperature of each shipment.

"They're good for six months. Once you take them out or you place them in a refrigerator, they're good for five days – up to 120 hours," said Kuldip Patel, associate chief pharmacy officer at Duke University Hospital.

Duke Health has three ultra-cold freezers for its hospitals in the Triangle, and the system has some experience in storing the vaccine already as it participated in Pfizer's clinical trial of the drug.

"There's additional freezer capacity in case we need to expand further beyond that," Patel said.

Tart said Cape Fear Valley Health will be able to provide shots within a day of receiving its first vaccine shipment from Pfizer. The drug requires two shots three weeks apart.

"We have plans for all those, as well as [protective gear] requirements, staging, safe distancing and how we're going to follow these patients," he said.

Duke Health plans to use retired nurses to help vaccinate its 20,000 employees, Patel said, providing its first shots within a day or two of FDA approval.

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