COVID-19 vaccine arrives at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center-Ontario for storage, distribution

The first doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine arrived at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center-Ontario this morning. A staff member puts them into a special "ultra-cold" storage freezer, known commonly among health-care officials as ultra-lows.


The first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to be distributed in eastern Oregon arrived in Ontario Tuesday morning and more are expected throughout the week and over the course of the next several weeks. They will be stored at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center-Ontario. Oregon Health Authority reported that the hospital was one of five locations throughout the state to receive 975-dose packages of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Monday and Tuesday.

“Because the vaccine requires the ultra-cold storage, distribution to rural communities will be challenging, but not impossible, said Dr. Steven Nemerson, chief clinical officer for Saint Alphonsus Health System. “The Pfizer vaccine can be safely transported in dry ice, and then stored in regular freezers or refrigeration for up to 5 days.”

The hospital does have the freezers required to “maintain the integrity” of the inoculations, he says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked Oregon to choose the initial sites as a way to test the system that providers around the state are using to order the vaccine, according to OHA. The shipments took place after the FDA decided Friday to issue an emergency to authorize the Pfizer vaccine. A similar move is expected this week or next week for the Moderna vaccine.

As far as distributing the vaccines, Nemerson said Saint Alphonsus is in the process of exploring with OHA how it can help distribute them throughout the region.

“Plans are not final yet, but we’ve offered to work with OHA to assist,” he said.

Saint Alphonsus’ hospitals in Ontario and Baker City are collaborating with public health authorities in those areas to get vaccinations for community health-care workers, he said.

Nemerson said those workers in Idaho were among the first to get vaccinations on Monday evening, “in accordance with CDC and State of Idaho guidelines on who should be first to get the shot.”

Health system officials are hopeful they can start administering vaccines to Oregon colleagues by Friday, following the same CDC guidelines as well as OHA.

“The process for who and when colleagues will be vaccinated is being developed as we speak,” said Claudia Weathermon, with marketing and communications for the Ontario hospital, in an email Tuesday afternoon. “It is a voluntary inoculation.”

More shipments of the vaccine are expected to arrive later this week, with regular shipments following to meet the demand, Nemerson says. OHA says the remaining 30,225 Pfizer vaccine doses for Oregon will arrive at hospitals throughout the rest of the week. Of those, 10,725 will be going to skilled-nursing facilities, such as Vale’s Pioneer Place, the only such facility in Malheur County. Those facilities may be able to start vaccinations next week.

Additionally, once the FDA approves the Moderna vaccine, doses are expected to arrive in eastern Oregon next week.

When the timing is right per federal and state guidelines for he and his family to get the vaccine, Nemerson said he would be comfortable with them receiving it.

“It’s important for people to know that this vaccine, while brought to market much faster than a normal vaccine approval process, has undergone rigorous testing and I believe it is safe and effective,” he said. “The 90-95% efficacy rate is phenomenal for any vaccine, and tens of thousands of people were part of Stage 3 clinical trials.”

OHA notes that in those trials, most people only experienced mild to moderate, short-lived side effects.

Public health officials anticipate that there will be enough of the two vaccines to “provide first doses to about 100,000 people, with second doses following in January,” according to OHA.

However, Nemerson, echoes the cautionary advice of his health-care colleagues throughout the nation.

“While the delivery of the vaccine is indeed good news, it will take time for everyone to have access,” he says. “So until people can get vaccinated, it’s critically important that everyone continues to take precautions against spreading the virus. That includes wearing a mask, maintaining physical distancing, avoiding large crowds, and frequently washing your hands and surfaces.”

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