When the first Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines started arriving in Walla Walla to vaccinate health workers in December, logistics had to be found.
One of the major needs was a very low temperature freezer to store vaccines. Providence St. Mary’s Medical Center ordered such a freezer – a freezer that keeps produce at minus 80 degrees Celsius – but soon found it couldn’t be delivered until the end of January.
We thank two Whitman College biology professors for taking action to remedy the problem.
Jim Russo and Brit Moss had discussed with the students why vaccines had to be stored at such a low temperature. This made them wonder if the local hospital had such a freezer.
“These freezers are specialty freezers that aren’t widely available,” Moss said. “But we had several available in Whitman for research.”
They decided to see if they would be able to release one, just in case one was needed in the hospital.
“We realized that we could probably reorganize the way things are stored in our freezers to empty one of them if it turned out that (the Department of) Community Health or Providence St. Mary’s was in. needed, ”Moss said.
One of Russo’s former students is Michele Roberts, director of immunization at the Washington Department of Health.
Roberts was a guest in one of Russo’s classes in November.
“She said one of their biggest issues was how they were going to distribute the vaccine because of this temperature requirement,” Russo said.
Russo said he and Moss then worked through Thanksgiving week and determined they had enough room to empty one of their freezers. So he wrote to Roberts in December and said they could provide one.
She immediately put him in touch with Dalari Allington, director of pharmacy at Providence St. Mary. Arrangements were then made to transport the freezer – a Innova U535 – to the hospital.
Russo said it took work to figure out how to move the items they had in the freezer. The other freezer they moved the items into was in another building.
He said a cold day made the process a bit easier and the items moved without incident.
Russo and Moss said the freezer on loan to Providence needed to be tested for three days to make sure it could maintain its temperature – minus -80 degrees Celsius equals minus -112 degrees Fahrenheit. Once this was confirmed, Providence St. Mary Medical Center began using the freezer to store vaccines.
“We are grateful that Whitman donated the freezer knowing it might be useful,” said Emily Volland, spokesperson for Providence. “And it sure was.”