St. Luke’s gears up for coronavirus vaccinations coming for Idaho health care workers

St Luke's Freezers
St. Luke's Gloves
Posted at 3:39 PM, Dec 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-12 17:39:44-05

This article was originally written by Ruth Brown for the Idaho Statesman.

St. Luke’s Health System announced Friday it has received the designated equipment it will need to hold coronavirus vaccines and they hope to vaccinate some frontline workers as soon as possible.

The vaccine’s manufacturer Pfizer told hospital system this week that the first shipments are on the way and are expected to arrive in the next few days.

Depending on emergency use authorizations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, vaccines could be administered to the first St. Luke’s frontline health care workers as early as the end of next week.

Hospital systems in Idaho have repeatedly said they need to keep staff healthy and some were struggling with nurses, doctors and other staff who must quarantine due to either a coronavirus infection or exposure.

Scott Milner senior director of pharmacy for St. Luke’s Health System said in a Friday interview that the hospital has been working since July to prepare for the vaccine. Around September they realized they would need new equipment.

The coronavirus vaccines must be stored at temperatures lower than others that St. Luke’s previously has stored. It must stay at sub zero temperatures.

The Pfizer vaccine will be delivered in specialty designed temperature-controlled thermal shippers that use dry ice to maintain the recommended storage temperature of minus 70 degrees Celsius (that’s minus 94 degrees below zero Fahrenheit) for up to 10 days unopened. The packages are equipped with GPS-enabled thermal sensors to track the location and temperature of all shipments.

Each box weighs 70 pounds — 50 pounds of that is the dry ice. St. Luke’s volunteered to be a test site and recently received a sample empty vaccine box to ensure the process worked. The test was a success and temperatures inside the sample box stayed at minus 80 degrees Celsius, which is minus 112 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, even through transport.

Because of the ultra-low temperatures, the vaccines will be handled with special leather gloves that St. Luke’s purchased with the help of community donations to the St. Luke’s COVID-19 Relief Fund.

The freezers can each hold 20,000 vaccines and have multiple layers of back-up alarms and notification systems to ensure their ultra-low cold temperatures are always adequate. The hospital also has a back-up system with a storage chest holding 500 pounds of dry ice as a precaution.

The COVID-19 vaccine can be stored inside that chest for up to 20 days, as long as the dry ice is replenished every five days, according to the St. Luke’s news release.

Milner said it has been an evolving process, but the way different manufactures and hospital systems -- who are normally competitors have worked together has been rewarding.

“One of the things that shocked me the first first time I heard it was the smallest shipping amount that would be provided was 975 doses,” Milner said about COVID-19 vaccine orders.

So, St. Luke’s plans to collaborate with smaller hospitals that need the vaccine but do not need 975 doses because they don’t have that many employees. That means they have to maintain low temperatures while sharing needed doses.

“While is might seem fast in some aspects, I feel that we have done our due diligence and do our homework and evolve as we learn more,” he said.