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CHICAGO — It’s one of the key components in a complicated distribution plan – specific storage requirements must be met to house the first COVID-19 vaccine doses expected to ship as early as next week.

Lurie Children’s Hospital took a critical step in the process Monday. 

Two ultracold freezers arrived on the loading dock at the hospital Monday morning.

Jenny Elhadary is a pharmacist and Lurie Children’s Vice President of Clinical Services.

“They hold about 3500 doses per freezer,” she said. “So we will be well equipped to receive whatever amount the state and city are willing to give us.”

The freezers were brought to the 19th floor research laboratory. The units were ordered specifically to house Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, which must be stored at -70 degrees Fahrenheit. As a comparison, your freezer at home cools to about negative 20 degrees.

“Usually, when manufacturers produce drugs, they test the stability of that drug at certain temps,” Elhadary  said. “In this case, they wanted to insure stability of the drug over the long term so they could ship it and distribute it over a longer period of time. So when they are trying to expedite getting the drug out, it requires an ultracold temperature.”

Elhadary said the time-sensitive logistics plan formulated by a 15-person vaccine task force.

“It is historic. It’s so exciting,” she said.

The FDA is expected to grant emergency use authorization next week after a committee considers the Pfizer product’s safety and efficacy data.

When the vaccine arrives at Lurie, one of 12 Chicago hospitals with ultracold storage capacity, employees will schedule specific time slots to receive the first of two injections, 21 days apart.

“When the doses arrive, we want to sequester 50 percent of those doses to ensure that we are reserving the second dose for the employees that fall into the first tier of priority,” Elhadary said. “So we will sequester the second dose. If we receive 1000 we’ll have enough to vaccinate 500 employees.”

The doses will be transferred from the freezers on 19th floor to an 11th floor conference room that’s been converted to a vaccination clinic. There, the vials can be stored in a regular refrigerator but only for five days. Once the vaccine is removed from the regular fridge, it must be diluted and administered within six hours.

“So you can see how managing the vaccine movement is so important to make sure we don’t waste any of this precious commodity,” Elhadary said. “We have been through dark times for a long time and delivery of the freezer and the vaccine gives us such hope. And I think it marks the beginning of our return to normal.”

While Pfizer’s vaccine will likely be the first to ship, Moderna’s product will not be far behind and does not require the same ultracold storage.