MHC receives ultra-cold freezer

From left are members of Manitoulin Health Centre’s supply chain and maintenance teams, including Chris McGaughey, Stuart Setterington, Debbie Graham and Duane Deschamps, alongside the new ultra-low temperature freezer.

Unit can store sensitive Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine

LITTLE CURRENT – Manitoulin Health Centre (MHC) last week welcomed an ultra-low temperature freezer to its Little Current hospital site, a unit that will allow for stable, long-term storage of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines that have to stay between -80°C and -60°C for optimum quality.

“This serves as a great example of MHC being true to its vision of ‘putting patients first as we lead and collaborate with our partners’,” said MHC president and CEO Lynn Foster. 

The health centre reached a purchase agreement with medical equipment provider Fisher Scientific, a regular supplier of equipment to MHC, for a freezer large enough to store 21,600 doses. It is capable of reaching -86°C, beyond the coldest temperature needed for this particular vaccine.

This unit cost roughly $12,000 and MHC covered that price using surplus funds from last year’s very productive ventilator fundraising campaign, as initiated by M’Chigeeng Ogimaa-kwe Linda Debassige.

According to a press release, hospital management and its board of directors knew Public Health Sudbury and Districts (PHSD) was working on its vaccination roll-out plans for the district and it decided early to purchase the freezer using the COVID-19-specific fundraising surplus to beat international demand for such equipment.

The hospital originally anticipated it on February 10 and it appeared on February 17 after a week’s delay, fairly close to the target date when considering the supply chain pressure.

Ultra-cold freezers work in concert with a warming fridge to gently warm the doses up. MHC had one of these warming fridges on hand already and it is now in place. 

Ms. Foster said a family helped to purchase the fridge for chemotherapy treatments when one of their family members underwent the process on the Island and it was not being used before the vaccination planning began.

“We’re working closely in terms of security requirements, safety requirements and temperature requirements. There’s a number of items on the checklist to make sure the fridge is carefully monitored to ensure the viability of the samples,” she said.

Pfizer and BioNTech recently applied to the US Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada to loosen the storage requirements for its vaccines. If approved, the countries will be able to store the doses at -25°C to -15°C. 

However, it can only remain stable at those warmer temperatures for up to two weeks, as opposed to the six-month window for the colder temperature. The vaccines can stay at refrigerator temperatures for up to five days before being injected, but the vaccines cannot safely move from a warmer state back into a colder state.

As for long-term plans for the equipment, Ms. Foster said she was focused on the short-term needs of getting ready for the vaccine roll-out, which may be imminent or months away depending on numerous factors.

“Who knows, (COVID-19) may be around for a lot longer than any of us want, and we have to remain flexible,” she said. “Obviously, we will focus on (long-term freezer plans) but not until after we’ve got a solid plan in place for vaccine distribution.”