We know that the COVID-19 vaccine must be kept at ultra-low temperatures for the drug to be effective. So, what are you supposed to do when the freezer malfunctions?
That’s what happened to a team of healthcare providers at Swedish Medical Center at the University of Washington in Seattle. For these daring nurses and doctors, it became a frantic race against the clock.
A Night Unlike Any Other
Last Thursday, Jenny Brackett, an assistant health administrator at UV Medicine, remembers winding down her shift, reading about a recent impromptu vaccination effort on the side of the road in Oregon, wondering if the same thing could ever happen to her. That’s when she first heard the news that one of the freezers at the facility had caused doses of the Moderna vaccine to thaw.
“When I got the call, they’re like, ‘It’s kind of like our snow moment,’” Brackett told The Washington Post.
It was around 9 PM local time when the call went out to nearly every provider in the facility. Without proper climate control, 1,600 doses of the vaccine were set to expire the next morning. The staff would have to vaccinate as many people as possible within the next eight hours – or all those doses would go to waste.
“I knew we could get the vaccinators there,” Brackett remembers thinking. “So, I had every faith in that element. I knew that our nursing team would come through.”
She says she and her team were ready to start the process by around 10 PM, and the vaccinators would arrive just an hour later.
Spreading the Word
The staff at UV Medical had to facilitate a massive public awareness campaign within a matter of minutes to make sure there were enough arms to prick.
Kevin Brooks, the chief operating officer who helped coordinate the effort, recalls, “We were literally like…who can get people here? People started texting and calling and we were just counting down.”
“I was a little bit like, how are we going to get 800 people to show up at, you know, at 10 or 11 o’clock at night?” Brackett said. “But that proved to be no problem at all, because, you know, word kind of spread like wildfire.”
They started with high-priority candidates, including healthcare workers, first responders, nursing home staff, anyone over the age of 65, and people over the age of 50 who live in multigenerational households. That meant calling union leaders, firefighter chiefs, and even the managers of local grocery stores.
After filling slots with essential workers, the facility tweeted, “URGENT: We have 588 DOSE 1 MODERNA appointments available Jan. 28 11 p.m. to Jan. 29 2 a.m.,” just before 11 o’clock with a link for scheduling appointments.
Locals started showing up in droves as word spread on social media with a line snaking through the facility. Brackett remembers walking up and down the queue, pulling high-priority candidates aside to make sure they got their shot.
“I was a little worried that the line maybe would not be too thrilled,” she said. “You know, that I am letting others go first. But that wasn’t the response I had at all. Actually, the crowd kind of cheered.”
Going All Night
Brackett and her team kept administering shots until the wee hours of the morning.
Cassie Sauer, the president of the Washington State Hospital Association, kept the governor and public health officials informed throughout the night. “The overarching rule was don’t waste any,” she said.
They only had about a dozen shots left with just 15 minutes to go after hours on endless vaccinations. One woman even showed up in flip-flops, running to get to the hospital in time. A local reporter remembers texting her friend, “Get in your car right now.”
“Thirty-seven. Thirty-five. Thirty-three…People were showing up and running down the hall,” Brooks said.
In the end, none of the 1,600 doses went to waste. The last dose was administered at 3:45 AM with zero time to spare.
The facility says everyone who got their shot will get their follow-up doses multiple weeks later, regardless of their priority status.
Some have criticized these impromptu vaccination efforts like the one we saw in rural Oregon last week. However, when things go wrong, providers usually have no choice but to vaccinate those who happen to be in the right place at the right time to make sure the drug doesn’t end up in the trash.
Others say they would like to see hospitals continue with this approach, even when the freezers are working properly.
“Idea: vaccinate with this level of urgency all the time,” a local journalist commented on Twitter.
But Sauer is pushing back on that idea.
“My dad is 80 and has Parkinson’s disease and he’s got some mobility issues. He can’t go stand in line for hours, waiting for a vaccine. He needs an appointment,” she responded.
Adding, “I think it works as a one-time kind of emergency thing, and it might work when we get to the place where we really are doing sort of general public vaccines. But at this moment … I think we need to think strategically about equity as well.”