First shipment of COVID-19 vaccine arrives at VCU Medical Center

The first doses will be administered to front-line medical workers beginning Wednesday.

A person wearing a mask and gloves places a box containing vaccine vials into a freezer.
Rodney Stiltner storing VCU Health’s first shipment of COVID-19 vaccine in one of VCU Medical Center's ultra-cold freezers. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

VCU Health’s first shipment of COVID-19 vaccine arrived by FedEx Tuesday morning, with the critically needed cargo unpacked, inspected and placed in VCU Medical Center’s ultra-cold freezers by about 10 a.m.

VCU Medical Center is one of only a few facilities in the state that meet the requirements to safely receive and store the COVID-19 vaccine, which must be stored at -80 degrees Celsius (-112 degrees Fahrenheit) to preserve stability.

“As an academic medical center, we conduct research trials that require ultra-cold freezers to preserve the stability of the drugs being studied,” said Rodney Stiltner, Pharm.D., director of pharmacy services at VCU Health Systems. “Our pharmacy staff will use special thermal gloves to remove the vaccine from the freezer in preparing each day’s dosage.”

Tuesday’s shipment contained about 4,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, packed in dry ice to maintain the frigid temperature.

Rodney Stiltner and public health officer Sumayya Beekun open, inspect and document a COVID-19 vaccine shipment.
Stiltner and public health officer Sumayya Beekun open, inspect and document the vaccine shipment that arrived Tuesday morning. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)
a gloved hand pointing to a temperature control unit on a package of ultra-cold stored COVID-19 vaccine
VCU Health is one of only a few facilities in the state that meet the equipment and storage requirements to safely receive and store the COVID-19 vaccine. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)
a shipping label on a box of COVID-19 vaccine
Tuesday's shipment contained about 4,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, packed in dry ice. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Vaccinations to begin Wednesday


VCU Health will begin vaccinating high-risk front-line VCU Health medical workers on Wednesday. The day’s vaccination schedule runs from noon to 5 p.m. The schedule is 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. next week, excluding the holidays. Hours may be expanded for additional medical workers after the holidays. Front-line medical workers sign up online for a designated time slot.

VCU Health will offer the vaccine first to interested front-line medical workers so they can safely care for patients. This includes those who provide care to known or suspected COVID-19 patients, such as in the COVID-19 intensive care unit or the emergency department. It also includes employees who regularly work in long-term-care facilities.

After that, distribution phases will be flexible depending on availability and as more is learned about the new vaccines. The plan will include distributing the vaccine to an expanded pool of VCU Health employees, patients and, hopefully, the broader community.

Though exact timing is uncertain, VCU Health will always make decisions with the safety of its team members, patients and the community in mind.

Rodney Stiltner and Sumayya Beekun opening a box of shipped COVID-19 vaccine.
Stiltner and Beekun opening a box of shipped Pfizer vaccine. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)
An ultra-cold freezer at VCU Medical Center set to -80 degrees Celsius.
An ultra-cold freezer at VCU Medical Center. The vaccine must be stored at -80 degrees C to preserve stability. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)
Rodney Stiltner and Sumayya Beekun inspect the contents of a box.
Stiltner and Beekun inspect the contents of a box Tuesday. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Vaccine storage and set-up


Pharmacy staff will start each vaccination day by moving trays of vaccine from the freezer to the refrigerator to thaw gradually over three hours. They will then add saline to the vaccine, dose it, prep the syringes and distribute them to the employee clinic.

Pharmacy staff will check in several times each day to determine how much to bring out. Once diluted, the vaccine is only good for six hours. “Our goal is to minimize or eliminate any waste,” Stiltner said. This could occur if they bring out too much vaccine for the number of people waiting.

If necessary, the vaccine can be thawed more quickly — only 30 minutes on the counter. Although safe to do so, Stiltner said they would generally thaw the vaccine in the refrigerator for greater stability.

This article originally appeared on the VCU Health website under the headline It’s here! COVID-19 vaccine arrives at VCU Medical Center.

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