In our last blog post, we pointed out some of the daunting challenges associated with “Operation Warp Speed” (OWS) because certain COVID-19 vaccine candidates will require storage at -80°C, while other doses may need to be frozen from -40°C to -20°C. Perhaps the most significant OWS obstacle now falls to local/regional COVID preparedness teams to plan for vaccine “last mile” distribution and administration. “Last mile” is a general term used within the cold chain space to indicate the connection from a regional repository to the end patient recipient. The responsibility sits with thousands of local health systems, clinical sites and pharmacies to plan local vaccine inoculation, where the side task of now needing to maintain the ultra-low temperature (ULT) cold chain may be the most difficult aspect of guaranteeing safe and effective doses. That is because most local facilities, processes and organizations providing vaccines for patients around the world have never had to prepare for a task of this magnitude, let alone at this temperature range!

Last Mile Vaccine Cold Storage Challenges

This lack of local preparedness is evidenced by the recent list of questions submitted by the National Governors Association to the Trump administration, which focuses on pressing issues related COVID-19 vaccine distribution, administration and cold chain at the regional and municipal level. This letter expresses specific concerns about dry ice shortages and handling issues, as well as the limited availability of ULT storage equipment in health care systems. In fact, health care facilities and pharmacies that will need to store and administer COVID-19 vaccines rarely have access to ULT freezers. Traditional ULTs have tended to be too expensive, bulky and noisy for clinical environments, with most requiring dedicated power supply to remain operative.

Local leaders will also be challenged to get vaccines from central state repositories to remote or immobile communities, such as rural populations, extended care facilities, nursing homes, etc., without breaking the ULT cold chain. Vaccine distribution partnerships with large pharmacy chains or health systems will only work if patients can and will drive to them. Finally, large pharmacy chains are not consistently available across all geographies and one size may not fit all.

Cold Storage Solutions for Local COVID Preparedness

To maintain vaccine efficacy, health care facilities and pharmacies have the option of deploying ULT freezers designed for remote and portable use in limited spaces. Stirling Ultracold’s ULT25NEU portable freezer and SU105UE undercounter model are ideal for local vaccine administrators who will suddenly find themselves needing remote and on-site ultra-low storage of frozen vaccine doses. These compact, lightweight units deliver the same performance and reliability as full-size ULTs and can be easily moved throughout clinical sites and plugged into any outlet worldwide, avoiding the need for building rewiring or HVAC modifications.

Depending on which vaccine candidates release, cold storage requirements of -20°C to -80°C must be available, and Stirling Ultracold freezers are the ONLY units available to cover that range and will help local leaders cover their bases.

Stirling ULT freezers are also available with SenseAnywhere remote cloud-based monitoring for these critical vaccine doses. With precise temperature setpoint control and the ability to log vaccine temperatures, point-of-care facilities and pharmacies can also maintain a reliable audit trail on site.

With the limited availability, life span and temperature control of dry ice cooling, portable and compact ULT storage will become a critical linchpin for local delivery of safe and effective vaccines to the public.

A Local Health System Leading the Way

The North Dakota Department of Health recently took notice of the unique temperature range and compact ULT models offered by Stirling Ultracold as they finalized their COVID preparedness programs. They’ve since decided to purchase multiple ULT25NEU portable freezers to distribute these vaccines from their central warehouses within their population. The ULT25NEU portable units are capable of transporting smaller batches of vaccines to local clinics and storing them for multi-dose waves. All the while, these ULT freezers hold doses at optimal temperatures until the vaccine is ready to be administered. With this last mile solution, North Dakota DOH now has the potential to become the model for many other more-remote communities across the United States.

Learn how to lead the way in COVID preparedness for your area. Download our COVID-19 Vaccine Administration Local Planning Guide