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Delaware hospitals prep freezers for first vaccines

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WILMINGTON — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is within days of approving at least one vaccine candidate, and Delaware hospitals are prepared to administer it to health care and frontline workers.

On Thursday night, the FDA’s vaccine advisory panel voted in favor of granting emergency use authorization for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, which likely paves the way for the agency to approve it. That means Delaware officials could start administering the vaccine as early as next week.

ChristianaCare, the largest hospital system in the state, is ready and waiting for the vaccine. Both Pfizer and the other leading vaccine candidate from Moderna used messenger RNA technology, which requires it to be kept cold to protect it. Pfizer’s needs to be kept in temperatures colder than winter in Antarctica, while Moderna’s can be stored in a standard freezer.

“For all of us at ChristianaCare who have been serving our community throughout this pandemic, this is a turning point that we have been waiting for. We still have many months ahead of us before we emerge from the pandemic, but the path forward is becoming clearer,” ChristianaCare President and CEO Janice Nevin said.

The Delaware Division of Public Health (DPH) received ultra-cold-storage units Wednesday to store the vaccine at a state warehouse for distribution. Other hospitals like Bayhealth, ChristianaCare and Beebe Healthcare have bought freezers, and are waiting for the vaccine to arrive.

ChristianaCare Hospital in Newark has 10 freezers on hand as of this week, and more are expected to arrive in the coming weeks, said ChristianaCare System Chief Operating Officer Sharon Kurfuerst.

“We have been preparing for many months to be ready for a COVID-19 vaccine,” she told the Delaware Business Times. “We are partnering closely with the DPH and with our health care partners throughout the state in planning for vaccine distribution. This planning is still under way and being led by DPH and the governor’s office.”

Meanwhile in Sussex County, Beebe Healthcare has ultra-low temperature freezers on hand, but the health care system also has backup dry ice if needed.

With the United States lined up to be the fourth country to administer the vaccine, and Americans across the country eager to leave the pandemic behind, Beebe COVID-19 Response Medical Director Dr. Bill Chasanov said demand is high for freezers to store the vaccine.

“It’s led to an overall shortage and an increased cost,” Chasanov told DBT in an email. “Because of the storage, security and administration requirements of the initial COVID-19 vaccines, Beebe will be keeping our vaccine supply in a singular location near Margaret H. Rollins Lewes Campus.”

Bayhealth bought two freezers early on in the pandemic, so there were no issues in finding them and they were “appropriately priced” at the time, according to Bayleath’s Director of Emergency Management and Public Safety Ryan Clarke.

Delaware has expected to receive between 8,000 and 9,000 doses from Pfizer and 6,000 from Moderna in the upcoming weeks. All three hospitals are preparing to administer the vaccine to health care providers in a tiered system based on the level of risk set forth by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state’s COVID-19 vaccine playbook.

That means high-risk workers in patient care settings and first responders will be first, with critical infrastructure workers next, followed by those with underlying or pre-existing conditions and those who are 65 and older.

Delaware’s estimated December vaccine dosage will be enough for roughly 1.5% of the state’s 975,000 residents, and most likely not enough for the thousands of health care workers on the frontlines of the pandemic. 

One silver lining is that Delaware’s hospitals do have some experience in quickly administering the vaccine to its own staff. In the past, ChristianaCare has vaccinated 90% of its 13,000 employees across four states in a single day through its annual influenza campaign.

Kurfuerst said ChristianaCare will use the same tracking system to track its employees who received the flu shot, which directly updates the state’s immunization registry.

“We will also leverage many of the same channels that we used to communicate information about the flu vaccine,” she added. “This system ensures that we are using our resources wisely and effectively and in continuously looking for ways to innovate throughout this endeavor.”

Bayhealth’s flu shot campaigns have also set it up to understand the complexity of administering vaccines on a large scale, and Clarke said the initial distribution will be based on risk, while still working with other health care partners in the state to get it out to the general public for a target of spring 2021.

“We do have a plan that follows the state and federal guidance that is tailored to our organization,” he said. “For this particular vaccine, we have to make sure we have to make sure to have a schedule in place for staff members given the more complex mixing and storing process. We don’t anticipate needing to store the vaccine on the behalf of others, but we’re more than happy to help our state and other hospital partners.”

Beebe will continue to pull lessons learned from its 48-hour flu vaccination campaign, which had its most successful turnout to date this year. But Chasanov cautioned that there could be complications that are not typically faced with the flu shots.

“It  is important to realize that the storage requirements of the initial COVID-19 vaccines pose additional challenges than the seasonal influenza vaccines,” he said. “Beebe is in regular communication with DPH to ensure that we have the most up-to-date information on the vaccine. Communication and information will be key to getting the word out to Delawareans when the vaccine becomes available for them.”

By Katie Tabeling

[email protected]

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