Health officials in Alberta have begun hunting around for specialized freezers, one of the first steps in preparing for the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines which could begin arriving within the next few months.
Earlier this month, the province began the procurement process for freezers able to meet COVID-19 vaccine storage requirements.
Initially, the government proposed the sole-source purchase of five freezers from Fisher Scientific, according to procurement documents, although Alberta Health said there is now an open competition between potential suppliers.
Alberta is looking to purchase four ultra-low units needed for the Pfizer vaccine and two laboratory freezer units for the Moderna vaccine. The six units will have about 23 cubic feet of capacity, which would be about the same size as a large refrigerator.
The storage units will be held at the provincial vaccine depot located in Fort Saskatchewan. Ultracold temperature freezers are in high demand and typically cost about $15,000.
The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius.
The ultra-low temperature storage requirements have sent some health authorities and hospitals scrambling to find special freezers.
“We don’t know which vaccines we’re going to get so the government is really preparing for every eventuality,” said Shannon MacDonald, a registered nurse and a professor at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health.
MacDonald and her team are currently researching who should be prioritized to receive the vaccine, which is part of a COVID-19 rapid response research project funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and is intended to guide public health officials in how they dole out the first rounds of immunizations when they become available in Canada.
Alberta expects to receive 465,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 221,000 of the Moderna vaccine for a total of 686,000 doses, earlier in the new year.
Being able to receive the doses and store them properly is just one part of the process to disburse the vaccines.
“The process is not linear. [The government] has to do a whole bunch of things at once,” said Dr. Margaret Russell, an associate professor and researcher at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, who specializes in public health preventive medicine.
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Health officials will have to create a distribution plan and decide who will deliver the vaccine, where it will go in the province and how it will be stored, she said.
At the same time, officials have to decide how many people will be needed to help at clinics where the vaccine will be administered.
“They have to think about the human resources, the training and skills set. Of course, right now, during COVID, people have to self isolate, we’re hearing a lot about health-care workers having to self isolate,” Dr. Russell said.
Vaccine recipients will need to be monitored for any adverse effects and to ensure they receive the second dose of the vaccination.
Besides the logistical considerations, a communications plan will also be key, said MacDonald, with the University of Alberta.
Health officials will have to preach patience, while also providing encouragement, she said.
“We need to reassure people that all the usual processes have been followed [in developing the vaccines], but much more quickly through a massive injection of funds, so that people are reassured, so that when it’s their turn and they are eligible for the vaccine, they’re prepared to get the vaccine,” said Macdonald.
Pfizer has begun “rolling submissions” for the vaccine with regulators in Europe, the United Kingdom and Canada, the company said.
The vaccine is among seven that Canada has pre-ordered.