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For rural Virginia, getting the vaccine is one thing; storing it is another

One district is considering clearing out museum freezers to store the temperature-sensitive serum
Published: Dec. 11, 2020 at 11:20 PM EST
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - For months, West Piedmont Health District’s Nancy Bell has spent plenty of time on one major problem: where to keep the sensitive COVID-19 vaccines in her rural chunk of south Virginia.

“The past couple of days have been fast-forward planning,” she said.

Both vaccines now awaiting approval need to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures. The Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept at around -80 degrees Fahrenheit, about the same temperature as a winter’s day in Antarctica. The Moderna vaccine doesn’t need to be kept as cold, but still has to stay at -20 degrees. That’s putting a burden on rural health districts, like West Peidmont, where the number of freezers capable of hitting those temperatures is limited.

Time to figure out the storage problem is also short. The district, which covers Franklin, Patrick, and Henry counties, alongside Martinsville, will receive its first vaccine shipment - it’ll be the Moderna vaccine - around December 21.

“We’re getting a hundred doses,” said Bell, “and we typically get many times that for flu vaccine,” which has to be kept at a similar temperature. “So we do have the capacity. But when it comes to big vaccination events, we’ll have to go to a plan B, which we’re still trying to figure out what that is.”

Those big events, tentatively planned for the spring, could require hundreds, even thousands, of doses, and all options are on the table as the district tries to find places to store them. Bell has discussed bringing in refrigerated trucks, or even clearing out the collections freezer at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville.

“We will do what we have to do,” she said. “And If we have to get our vaccine over two or three days in small allotments of 100 or 500 we will do that.”

Things are more complicated for the Pfizer vaccine. It takes a specialized freezer to reach -80 degrees. There are some on hand in West Piedmont, and the district has ordered more, but it’s unclear when they could arrive.

“If I knew that, everybody would be really happy. But I don’t,” said Bell.

Despite those challenges, Bell says she’s confident the capacity issue will be sorted out before vaccines start arriving in large numbers. Her next challenge: making sure people actually want to take it.

“It’s our goal to have not one vial left,” she said.

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