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Gearing Up For Possible Vaccine, Maine Officials Contending With Shortage Of Dry Ice For Storage

Austin Nix
Flickr/Creative Commons
Dry ice is in short supply, just as health officials look to secure more for possible COVID-19 vaccine storage.

News that a highly effective vaccine for COVID-19 could be available before the end of the year is creating excitement in the medical world. It has also triggered a race to secure the ultra-cold-storage capacity needed to keep the vaccine viable.

That’s tightening the supply for a vital commodity used by many of Maine’s lobster processors — dry ice.

Maine CDC director Nirav Shah says more information is needed before he’s satisfied that the Pfizer vaccine will be as successful as the company’s initial information shows. But he is planning for it.

“We are working to expand the scope of ultra-cold storage that we’ve got in Maine. We’ve already talked to the various hospitals in Maine that have such facilities, and then we on our side are working to acquire additional freezers to bolster our internal capacity to store that vaccine,” he says.

“We may have vaccine here as early as some time in December. We can only hope anyways,” says Dora Mills, chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth.

Mills says that hospital system has freezer capacity to store tens of thousands of doses of the vaccine for long periods of time. But she adds that the freezers are mostly located in the greater Portland area, which could mean challenges in trying to safely transport and store vaccine farther afield.

“Of course we don’t want to be storing them, we want to be administering this vaccine. And the good news is that there are also other ways the vaccine can be stored for a short period of time. So for instance the shipping box it arrives in has a lot of dry ice in it. That dry ice can be replenished and you can keep the dry ice in it for about 15 days in that box,” she says.

But she adds, dry ice — frozen carbon dioxide — would need to be replenished daily. And at 50 pounds of ice per box of vaccine, she says, that can add up. And just as the entire nation gears up for what is hoped will be a massive distribution effort in the near future, it looks like the dry-ice supply may be drying up.

“Quite honestly with dry ice, there’s already been a shortage,” says Alan Tracy, president of Vessel Services Inc., which sells dry ice from Portland’s waterfront, mostly to the fishing industry.

Tracy says that the pandemic-induced drop in car travel has in turn reduced the supply of liquid CO2 that’s a byproduct of making the gasoline additive ethanol. And now dry-ice manufacturers are putting vaccine-related purveyors at the front of the line.

Tracy is all for making sure vaccine can get where it needs to go. But the new demand is coming at a time when he usually can depend on robust sales, as lobster processors are freezing and shipping product for the holiday markets.

“We just had a number of calls today about it. And all we can do is try to keep people up to date, but it’s too bad when people really look to ramp up their businesses, and if you’re shipping frozen things,” he says.

At Luke’s Lobster, co-founder Ben Conniff says the team indeed spent the day contending with a sudden drop in dry-ice supply, with no immediate solution in sight.

Mills and officials at other hospital systems in Maine say they are casting around for new sources for dry ice. Those could include brewers, she says, who sometimes use it, and the University of Maine.

A university spokesman says it is researching both its cold storage capacity and its potential dry-ice manufacturing capabilities, and will report to the state CDC by the end of the week.