The Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic received an unexpected but much-needed surprise this Christmas season in the form of ultracold storage freezers for the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine this month. Scientists estimate that the vaccine, which requires two doses, is 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 — the illness caused by the virus — a week after the second dose. Doses must be stored at temperatures of minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit.
The sudden, urgent need for ultracold storage resulted in a shortage of equipment nationwide. Lori Kelley, the senior director of quality at the Farm Workers Clinic, said she didn’t expect that staff would be able to get an ultracold freezer until next spring.
But employees at Yakima’s AgroFresh Solutions, a company that specializes in fresh produce storage, noticed they weren’t using three of their ultracold storage units. They reached out to see if the clinic might want them.
That helping hand was a blessing, especially since the clinic serves more than 181,000 patients who otherwise wouldn’t have access to primary care, Kelley said.
“We are the best place to ensure that the most vulnerable in our community have access to this life-saving vaccine,” Kelley said. “This will enable us to more quickly and efficiently serve our patients and our community.”
The freezers are going to clinic locations in Yakima, Toppenish and Grandview, and Yakima’s clinic received its freezer this week.
Julio Cruz, the regional operation manager for the Pacific Northwest for AgroFresh, started his career with the company as an apple picker before rising, over the years, to a management position. Cruz said that he and other employees understand the challenges faced by area farm workers or have received treatment at the Yakima Valley Farm Workers clinic.
AgroFresh, which hires a significant number of seasonal workers for its operations, had an existing relationship with the Farm Workers Clinic. Cruz said employees who showed symptoms or had possibly been exposed to the coronavirus received testing at the clinic.
“We’re following the news, just like everybody else,” he said. “It was brought up that someone needed ultracold storage. We saw the need here. We got together locally with the team and decided we needed to do something.”
Cruz said the company wholeheartedly supported the idea to loan out the ultracold storage freezers.
“I’m really grateful to work for a company that was willing to jump in. They understand that it’s critical,” Cruz said. “We were able to help our community, and we are really grateful for that.”
Paul Nelson, the commercial director for AgroFresh-North America, said the company sees itself as part of the Yakima community and wanted to help.
The company is looking to see if it can loan other available ultracold storage units to community agencies in need, it said in a statement.
The FDA last week authorized the Moderna vaccine for emergency use. The vaccine also requires two doses, but Moderna doses don’t need ultracold temperatures.
The first vaccines are going to front-line health workers and long-term care residents and staff this month.
Six agencies in Yakima County have been approved, or are in the process of being approved, for distribution of authorized coronavirus vaccines. Those agencies are the county’s three hospitals, the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, Community Health of Central Washington and Neighborhood Health Services.
Rhonda Hauff, the chief operating officer for Yakima Neighborhood Health, said the health care system is expecting to receive doses in the upcoming weeks. Staff aren’t sure yet whether they’ll receive the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, so they are planning and preparing for both, Hauff said.
Neighborhood Health doesn’t have ultracold storage, but the Pfizer vaccine comes in thermal shippers where it can be kept for up to 20 days.
“We’ll be prepared for whatever we receive,” Hauff said.
Hauff said Neighborhood Health’s medical providers all have said they want to be vaccinated, which has encouraged other staff to get the doses.
“I’m optimistic for as many of our staff to be vaccinated as possible,” Hauff said. “We know these vaccines have been tested. The science is behind it. We’re very excited.”
Hauff said Neighborhood Health could start vaccinating as early as next week, if they receive the vaccines by then.
Dr. Michael Schaffrinna, the chief medical officer for Community Health of Central Washington, said receiving the Moderna vaccine is a guarantee at this point. But staff also are prepared to receive and administer doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Virginia Mason Memorial, which has ultracold storage units, agreed to accommodate a box of doses of the Pfizer vaccine for Community Health if needed, Schaffrinna said.
Community Health has standard refrigeration and freezer units already in its clinics to store the Moderna vaccine, Schaffrinna said.
“When the vaccines arrive, we will take them to the appropriate storage,” he said. “Two of our sites already are ready to administer the vaccines.”
Schaffrinna said staff will monitor those who receive the vaccine for 15 to 30 minutes to monitor for side effects, which have been mild for most patients according to recent research. Schaffrinna said staff anticipate vaccinating up to 30 patients per hour, for a total of more than 200 people per day during the initial phases. He hopes eventually the clinics will be able to increase that number to about 480 people a day.
“That is not going to happen overnight,” he acknowledged. “We are looking into hiring additional people. There are a lot of little pieces that come into the plan.”
Schaffrinna said many of his staff want to receive the vaccine. He said that he’d be the first in line. His son, who is in his 30s, was hospitalized by the virus — a development that made the fight against COVID-19 personal for Schaffrinna.
“This is a deadly virus where we can’t predict which people it will kill or hospitalize,” he said. “Initially, some people were hesitant to get the vaccine. But that number is dwindling as people realize the vaccine is safe and very, very effective.”
Reach Lex Talamo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.