For several weeks, the last thing Pharmacist Wangqi Chen did before going to bed was check his iPhone. He wasn’t looking at his Facebook feed. He was making sure that the freezer containing COVID-19 vaccines at the Maimonides Geriatric Centre was cold enough.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine must be stored in a special freezer at -75 degrees Celsius, about the temperature of Antarctica in winter. It was Mr. Chen’s job to verify it stayed that way. Monitoring the temperature remotely was one of the numerous tasks facing pharmacists like Mr. Chen, who has been working intently behind the scenes in our CIUSSS to make sure the historic vaccination rollout is done smoothly and safely.
“I’m doing my small part to make sure the vaccines are good, are ready, and aren’t wasted,” says Mr. Chen, who also checked the freezer’s temperature first thing when he woke up. “Thanks to the vaccine, we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Getting the Pfizer vaccine from its plant in Belgium into people’s arms in Montreal is a massive logistical puzzle, and the pharmacists in our CIUSSS make sure every piece fits. As the vaccination campaign continues, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians are helping prepare the precious doses that will protect their co-workers and other people at risk.
“My team has been eager to be part of the process of reaching the end of the pandemic,” says Eva Cohen, Chief of the Pharmacy Department for CIUSSS West-Central Montreal. “Everyone jumped on board and made every effort to help. They’re happy to be part of the solution.”
The complexity and importance of the pharmacists’ job was on display in December, when Montreal’s first Pfizer vaccines were delivered by UPS to Donald Berman Maimonides Geriatric Centre. Mr. Chen, on hand to receive them, sliced open the cardboard container with a box cutter, and carefully lifted out two trays of vaccines. He wore thick, insulated mittens—necessary to avoid frostbite. Each shipping box is packed with dry ice and a GPS tracker to monitor the vaccine’s temperature and location through its journey.
Mr. Chen and Pharmacist Julien Roy-Lafrance placed the trays in the ultra-cold freezer, which is about the size of a regular household fridge. Then, they began a series of precise steps to get the vaccines ready for injection.
As soon as the vaccine is removed from the freezer, the clock starts ticking. The vaccine remains effective for only five days at refrigeration temperature. To prepare it for injection, the pharmacists dilute it with a saline solution, gently turn the vial over several times like an hourglass, and carefully inspects it.
At that point, the window remains small: After dilution, the vaccine must be used within six hours. Like a fine-tuned choreography, every move has to be in sync, so that when the pharmacists are ready to deliver the vaccine, there are arms ready to receive it. “It was a constant calculation, every day,” Mr. Chen says.
Pharmacists in our CIUSSS worked closely with teams from Human Resources and Health, Safety and Well-being in the Workplace so that the scheduling of appointments matched the thawing process, and no vaccine was wasted.
“We made sure we were using it to the last drop,” Ms. Cohen says.
The pharmacists say it feels exciting to participate in an historic effort to turn the corner on the pandemic. Gaëlle Abittan, Assistant Chief of the Pharmacy Department, has been part of the CIUSSS brigade that is helping vaccinate people at long-term care homes and Intermediate Resources. Aside from her public-health role, there is a personal dimension to Ms. Abittan’s efforts: She was infected with COVID-19 herself.
“To think that someone, and someone’s family, could be spared that is really huge,” she says. “I know how important this task is. It’s great to be part of it.”