Local hospitals secure hard-to-get freezers to store first COVID-19 vaccine

Hospitals in the area could start receiving COVID-19 vaccines as early as next week pending FDA emergency approval of the Pfizer vaccine, but storing the long-awaited vaccine is a battle in itself.

Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine needs to be stored in temperatures of at least -70 degrees Celsius, or -94 degrees Fahrenheit. To compare, a typical freezer is kept at -18 degrees Celsius, or 0 degrees Fahrenheit. 

A freezer that can achieve the needed temperatures is not typical for hospitals to have on hand.

“So this COVID vaccine requiring such ultra-low freezer temperature is very unique for us and we’ve had a challenge trying to find the freezer,” said Elaine Huang, interim director of pharmacy at Harborview Medical Center.

After months of preparation, UW Medicine is armed with an ultra-cold freezer for each of its three campuses. The purchasing operations manager, Christine Meyer, said each costs about $25,000 a year to lease. 

“It’s a huge relief, it is,” Meyer said. “These machines are in very high demand right now across the entire world, not even just nationally, the whole world is looking for this ultra frozen supply chain storage. So to be able to procure it and have it on-site, it is a relief that we were able to get it locally and share it with our community.”

One freezer can hold at least 50,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, Meyer estimates. Pending FDA approval, Harborview can start stacking freezer shelves with life-saving doses as early as next week. The first-available vaccines will go to health care workers treating COVID-19 patients. 

“We’re all so exhausted working to fight this COVID-19 and to be able to have this in our horizon is kind of the beginning to an end, possibly, of the pandemic,” Huang said. 

Despite the promise of vaccine deliveries, health care workers warn that it’ll still be months before the general public has access to vaccinations, given limited availability. The state has determined distribution priorities and masks and social distancing will still be key until vaccines are widely available, they say.