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Maine Agencies, Hospitals, Colleges Team Up To Secure Enough Ultracold Storage For COVID-19 Vaccine

Richard Meinking, senior director of Maine Medical Center's pharmacy department, unpacks the hospital's first ever shipment of COVID-19 vaccines.

As COVID-19 vaccines begin to arrive in Maine, one challenge facing health care providers is storage. Pfizer’s vaccine must be kept refrigerated at -70 C. Health care organizations, state agencies and universities are working together to acquire enough ultracold freezers to hold and distribute tens of thousands of doses across the state.

When Bates College Professor Brett Huggett listened to a Maine CDC briefing in early November, he heard the agency’s director, Dr. Nirav Shah, say that the state was in need of more ultracold storage in order to hold thousands of doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

“We have several of those units at Bates College, and I thought it’d be an excellent opportunity for us to help out the community by possibly lending one of these freezers, or more, to some of the local hospitals,” he says.

Huggett reached out to university administrators, who agreed. They surveyed the school and identified several large units that could be used. Two were shipped off to Lewiston’s Central Maine Medical Center, while a third was moved to nearby St. Mary’s Hospital.

“It’s really a collegewide effort, in terms of freeing up these freezer units in order to lend them to local hospitals. So we’re really happy to help out,” Huggett says.

Those transfers are part of a wide effort in recent months from hospitals, state agencies and several colleges across Maine to secure needed cold storage space in anticipation of the tens of thousands of doses of COVID-19 vaccine now arriving in the state.

“As the summer got toward the end, we realized that we were going to need ultracold [storage]. So knowing that probably everybody else would be doing the same thing, we were like, ‘I think we’ll just order some,’” says Jennifer Kinney, system director of pharmacy supply chain and program management at Northern Light Health.

Kinney says the health system began planning back in the early summer on how it would secure enough cold storage space.

Some of the existing equipment was getting old, so officials decided to purchase four new ultracold freezers. And Kinney says they’re big units — nearly 30 cubic feet, which she says makes the staff confident that they can meet vaccine storage needs.

“They can hold a lot,” she says with a laugh. “They can hold about 48,000 [doses] each.”

Distributing the vaccine is another challenge, especially in rural Maine. Northern Light has spread out its four freezers in Portland, Bangor, Dover-Foxcroft and Presque Isle. And Kinney says even with that wide geographic range, the health system will still need to transport the vials up to three hours to far-flung towns in rural Aroostook County.

Kinney says the Pfizer vaccine is stable for up to five days at more standard refrigerated temperatures. So the plan is to use a courier service, with refrigeration, to move the vaccines long distances.

“And it takes two-and-half hours to thaw. It takes three hours, actually, to thaw. So if we’re pulling them out of the freezer, in the pharmacy, as they’re going out the door, then they’ll be thawed and ready to go for administration when they get there,” she says.

Other organizations and agencies, meanwhile, have partnered with colleges around the state. The CDC says it has secured three ultra-cold freezers at a storage facility, and a fourth is on its way. The freezers include a unit lent by the University of New England. CDC spokesperson Robert Long says each is conservatively estimated to hold about 10,000 doses of vaccine.

Other institutions say they’re also ready to assist if hospitals or agencies need even more room. Earlier this week, the University of Maine System formed a task force to coordinate and assist with vaccine distribution, including on its own campuses. System Chancellor Dannel Malloy says its institutions have roughly 220 cubic feet of ultracold storage that isn’t needed now, but could be as more doses come in.

“Eventually, more product will come than will be used immediately. And that’s when additional storage will undoubtedly be called upon,” he says.

Malloy says those resources could be particularly important in far-reaching areas of the state, like Washington County, where the University of Maine at Machias is already being used a testing site for COVID-19.