'Handle with Care': MT hospitals prepare for precious cargo of COVID-19 vaccine

Posted at 9:56 AM, Dec 14, 2020

BILLINGS — This week, as shipments of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine make their way across the country and to Montana, hospital officials in Billings are preparing for a stringent set of rules for how the vaccine must be handled.

Billings Clinic anticipates the vaccine to be in-house on Wednesday and not long after it arrives officials hope to administer it to frontline workers.

The Pfizer vaccine will be transferred from a shipping “softbox” at Billings Clinic into an ultra-cold freezer designed to keep the vaccine at arctic temperatures, but it must be done so in a certain way.

“It's called a softbox and there's multiple components of it,” said Billings Clinic Director of Pharmacy Jacki Ulishney.

Ulishney, along with a team, started prep for the vaccine weeks ago.

“So the trays are stacked one to five trays In the box and then on top of it is up to 50 pounds of dry ice in this container. And then it's covered with the lid that has a built in temperature monitor,” she said.

She says Pfizer tracks the temperature of the softbox containing the virus in real-time, tracking to make sure it stays at a temperature at -80º Fahrenheit.

“And then you have five minutes to transfer it from that to this,” she said, meaning the window of opportunity to get the vaccine from the softbox to the ultra-cold freezer is quick.

Ulishney says Billings Clinic has had the ultra-cold freezer for years storing important research drugs because the hospital is known for its research projects.

But at first, she was unsure it could be used, "we were going to use the thermal cooler dry ice method and we were just going to make sure we got people vaccinated in that 35-day window."

The hospital’s ultra-cold freezer was full of important research drugs.

“I called the research coordinator and said, 'hey, you know, are any of those drugs ones that can be sent back? Or are all of those research studies still ongoing'?" she said.

Turns out she was in luck, "one of them that was taking up the bulk of the space was actually closed, so it was sent back and opened up that space so we can store significant quantities.”

The vaccine comes in a box roughly 9 in. by 9 in. by 2 in. Ulishney says when they measured out the space in the freezer they anticipate holding anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 doses.

“It's been kind of a whirlwind, and it's been very exciting, and I've been doing my best,” she said. “So yeah, significant space. If we need it.”

She’s seen the entire process unfold firsthand and it will likely be Ulishney’s hands that are the first to handle the vaccine.

“I don't know that I personally have ever been part of a project quite this big,” she said. “We continue to learn and learn and learn and plan as we go.”

The vaccine for Ulishney is very meaningful. “I've had friends and family that have, you know, been affected by COVID. Some have come through fine and some not,” she said. “So this is very personal for me.”

She says, for her, the vaccine has always been the way out of this massive and deadly pandemic.

Billings Clinic is one of 10 Montana hospitals to get the vaccine. They are set to receive 975 doses in the initial shipment with additional shipments coming in the following weeks.

St. Vincent Healthcare also has an Ultra Cold Storage Freezer, which they purchased.