At Hospitals, A Race To Save 'Hundreds Of Thousands' Of Lives With New Vaccine

Dec 9, 2020
Originally published on December 9, 2020 8:30 pm

Lately, Jon Horton has been dreaming about freezers.

"I was opening the freezer and I was taking something out of the freezer and putting it in something else," Horton said. "And it was just like — whew!"

And not just an ordinary freezer. Horton is pharmacy operations director at Sentara — a health care network based in Norfolk, Va.

Sentara officials are working out every detail of the logistics involved in rolling out the coronavirus vaccine from Pfizer, which has to be kept at nearly minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit or risk losing effectiveness.

"At a certain point, you're just trying to figure out what needs to be done next," Horton said during an interview with NPR at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. "So you're focusing on this process, and as you open up that door, you learn a little more."

As federal regulators prepare to meet Thursday to consider whether they'll approve Pfizer's brand-new coronavirus vaccine, employees like Horton are preparing to receive the vaccine at hospitals around the United States.

The Sentara health system has four of the ultracold freezers that the vaccine requires, including one obtained through collaboration with a local medical school.

"We usually just deal with freezing temperatures, you know, a typical freezer," said Tim Jennings, Sentara's chief pharmacy officer. "That's why we had to actually go out and acquire a special freezer for this."

For sites that don't, there's dry ice. Jennings opens a big blue bin full of it, which resembles white "cheese doodles," he notes.

There's little room for error here: The vaccines must be monitored to make sure the temperature is stable each step of the way. And they're in short supply right now; the first shipment from Pfizer is expected to include only about 72,000 doses for all of Virginia, a state of more than 8 million people.

Dry ice will be used to help keep the Pfizer vaccine at ultracold temperatures.
Sarah McCammon / NPR

Michelle Hood, chief operating officer at the American Hospital Association, said health care administrators across the country are gearing up for a major logistical undertaking.

"We've never done anything like this as a country or in the world, as significant as this exercise is," Hood said. "And everything is new."

The first vaccines will go mostly to front-line health care workers at the highest risk of exposure.

That's where Mary Morin, a vice president in charge of employee vaccination at Sentara, comes in. She has a lot to think about as well.

"I did wake up last night and I'm going, 'Oh, my God,' " Morin said.

Morin, whose background is as a registered nurse, has to turn Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines about who should be first in line for the coronavirus vaccine into a real-life plan for her hospital workers.

"A front door to the hospital is the emergency department. You may have a security guard there. They're patient facing. They're forward facing," she said. "So it's the staff — it isn't just the nurses and the physicians."

Unlike the flu shot, Sentara officials say, the coronavirus vaccine will be optional for staff. Large studies indicate the Pfizer vaccine is about 95% effective with few side effects. But it's brand-new, and convincing people to take it may be a challenge.

The challenge ahead for hospital staff members like Jennings is making sure the vaccine is properly stored and administered to those who are willing and able to take the first doses. If the vaccine receives federal approval, officials say it could start being given to health care workers within days.

"We realize if we do this right, we could save thousands of lives," Jennings said, "if not hundreds of thousands."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Federal regulators meet tomorrow to consider whether they will approve Pfizer's brand-new coronavirus vaccine. It's been developed in record time, and you could say it's a bit fussy. The vaccine has to be transported and stored at ultra-cold temperatures or it may not work. As NPR's Sarah McCammon reports, health care providers are scrambling to prepare for an unprecedented and high-stakes rollout.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Jon Horton and his co-workers aren't sleeping so well these days.

JON HORTON: I had a dream. And it was I was opening the freezer, and I was taking something out of the freezer and putting it in something else. And it was just like, whew.

MCCAMMON: Horton is in charge of pharmacy operations at Sentara, a health care network based in Norfolk, Va. He has a lot to sort through.

HORTON: Because at a certain point, you're just trying to figure out what needs to be done next, right? So you're focusing on this process. And as you open up that door, you learn a little more.

MCCAMMON: At Sentara's Norfolk General Hospital, officials are working out every detail of the logistics involved in rolling out this brand-new vaccine, one that has to be kept around 95 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Tim Jennings is Sentara's chief pharmacy officer.

TIM JENNINGS: We usually just deal with freezing temperatures, you know, a typical freezer. Our medications are not stored at this level of freezing. That's why we had to actually go out and, you know, acquire a special freezer for this.

MCCAMMON: The hospital system only has a few of these ultra-cold freezers. For sites that don't, there's dry ice. Jennings opens up a big blue bin full of it.

JENNINGS: They kind of look like little Cheez Doodles. But that's dry ice, which is frozen CO2.

MCCAMMON: There's little room for error here. The CDC says the vaccines must be monitored to make sure the temperatures remain stable every step of the way. And the vaccines are in short supply right now. The first shipment from Pfizer is expected to include only about 72,000 doses for all of Virginia, a state of more than 8 million people. Michelle Hood with the American Hospital Association says health care administrators across the country are gearing up for a major logistical undertaking.

MICHELLE HOOD: We've never done anything like this in the country or in the world as significant as this exercise is, and everything is new. So it's a grand experiment, isn't it?

MCCAMMON: The first vaccines will go mostly to front-line health care workers at the highest risk of exposure. Mary Morin is in charge of employee vaccination at Sentara, and she's got a lot to think about as well.

MARY MORIN: I did wake up last night. I'm going, oh, my God.

MCCAMMON: Morin has to turn CDC guidelines about who should be first in line for the coronavirus vaccine into a real-life plan for her hospital workers.

MORIN: The - a front door to a hospital is the emergency department. And that includes - you know, may have a security guard there. They're patient-facing. They're forward-facing. So it's the staff. It isn't just the nurses and the physicians.

MCCAMMON: Large studies indicate the Pfizer vaccine is about 95% effective with few side effects. But it is brand-new, and convincing people to take it may be a challenge. Unlike the flu shot, Sentara officials say the coronavirus vaccine will be optional for staff. At the hospital in Norfolk, Tim Jennings says he and his colleagues feel a huge sense of responsibility.

JENNINGS: And we realize that if we do this right, we could save thousands of lives, if not, you know, hundreds of thousands.

MCCAMMON: If and when the vaccine receives federal approval, officials say it could start being given to health care workers within days.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Norfolk, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.