PITTSFIELD — As news spread of the success and imminent distribution of the new Pfizer-manufactured vaccine, hospitals around the country were presented with a vexing challenge: storing the doses at temperatures approaching minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Many didn’t have a freezer capable of keeping the vaccine that cold.
And that set off a scramble by some hospitals, including Berkshire Medical Center, to purchase the necessary ultracold freezer.
“They are very difficult to find,” said spokesperson Michael Leary. “Especially right now.”
Then, the head of Pittsfield’s Berkshire Innovation Center happened to see a TV report about how a shortage of freezers could hinder vaccine distribution.
“And I turned to my wife and said, ‘We have one of those!’ “ said Ben Sosne, the center’s executive director. BIC had installed an ultracold freezer in its laboratory space just before opening in February, and the $15,000-machine was sitting unused because of the pandemic.
So, Sosne called up his contacts at the health system. They told him that the hospital had put out an order for a freezer but were not sure when it would arrive, he said.
“I told them, ‘Just drop it off in our freezer,’ “ Sosne remembered, with a laugh. “As if it were someone’s leftover turkey.”
In short order, Sosne arranged to donate the freezer to BMC’s parent company, Berkshire Health Systems — for as long as needed, he told The Eagle — and the device arrived to the hospital late Wednesday evening.
“Like everyone else, we’re watching the struggles of health care workers,” Sosne said. “And we’ve been looking to help really in any way we can.”
Staff will have to use special gloves to access the freezer, in order to prevent skin damage from the cold, Leary said, and a wireless monitoring system will notify staff if the temperature rises above a certain level.
The Pfizer vaccine can also be stored temporarily and transported with dry ice. BHS told The Eagle it has ordered and received dry ice for use in distribution. Once thawed, the vaccine can be refrigerated for up to five days.
Massachusetts has also said it will distribute the first doses of the Moderna vaccine this month, which can be stored at regular freezer temperature of minus 20 degrees Celsius and lasts for 30 days in a refrigerator after thawing. The Pfizer vaccine, by contrast, must be kept at minus 70 degrees Celsius.
The new freezer can be set to minus 80 degrees Celsius and will be able to store up to 2,000 doses, according to BHS.
Given that the hospital expects to receive one shipment at a time and plans to use all 975 doses as soon as possible, Leary said he does not foresee any capacity issues early on.
“I suspect much of the first package will be gone by the time we get the second,” he said.