Health district shopping for vaccine cold storage capacity


EAST WENATCHEE — Using federal health dollars available from FEMA, Chelan-Douglas Health District administrator Luke Davies said Monday he wants to buy a supercold storage solution to keep COVID-19 vaccine for the four-county region.

“What this allows us to do is it allows the health district to have autonomy, just like we do for measles, the flu vaccine and others, to be a vaccine provider,” Davies told the board.

Davies won approval Monday from the district Board of Health to take bids on ultracold freezer equipment. If successful, the purchase would make Davies’ East Wenatchee agency the main storage point for vaccine serving Chelan, Douglas, Grant and Okanogan counties.

The two vaccines now in circulation, from Pfizer and Moderna, both require cold storage, but their requirements differ. Both can be refrigerated between 36 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit, but when frozen, the Pfizer vaccine must be kept to at least -76 degrees. Moderna only requires 5 degree freezing. Davies says he wants to explore the supercold option for Pfizer, the vaccine that’s now in use at the Town Toyota Center vaccination site.

“If we become a Pfizer site, it means that we have a lot more potential to do more,” Davies said, “and as this technology progresses in the future, and as we look at Pfizer and mRNA technology moving forward, it would be very beneficial for us to be able to store it here, and to potentially be able to distribute it from here to partners in Grant and Okanogan, do mobile clinics, et cetera.”

Davies says it’s also an effort to plan for the next two to three years of pandemic defense, once large-scale vaccination has been achieved.

“In the long term, we are looking at potentially doing boosters, depending on mutations of the coronavirus and if it travels through the population. The coronavirus is very much like the flu in the terms that it’s an annual virus that cycles through, like the common cold. But COVID-19 is a lot more virulent, and a lot deadlier.”

Small-scale ultracold storage can cost $3,000 to $4,000. Right now, Confluence Health is main storage site for local coronavirus vaccines, holding up to 20,000 doses. Matching the kind of deep-freezes used there could cost around $100,000. Davies says he’d like capacity to store 5,000 to 10,000 doses, at a cost up to $15,000, plus backup generator power that could cost from $3,000 to $20,000.

Since the purchases would be paid by FEMA money, Davies won unanimous approval from the health board Monday, but not without questions. Waterville mayor and health board member Jill Daling Thompson, herself a registered nurse, noted the vaccines have a short shelf life once thawed to storage temperature.

“Having the capacity to store these vaccines, is there a similar plan for how to disperse them in a timely way?” she said.

Davies said having on-site storage allows rapid contracting with local health providers in the event of future outbreaks. “When we have FEMA funding and these different funding mechanisms, it’s really easy for us to scale up very quickly, and then move our planning forward in terms of distributing out to areas that are going to need it.”