AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Federal regulators meet tomorrow to consider whether they will approve Pfizer's brand-new coronavirus vaccine. It's been developed in record time, and you could say it's a bit fussy. The vaccine has to be transported and stored at ultra-cold temperatures or it may not work. As NPR's Sarah McCammon reports, health care providers are scrambling to prepare for an unprecedented and high-stakes rollout.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Jon Horton and his co-workers aren't sleeping so well these days.
JON HORTON: I had a dream. And it was I was opening the freezer, and I was taking something out of the freezer and putting it in something else. And it was just like, whew.
MCCAMMON: Horton is in charge of pharmacy operations at Sentara, a health care network based in Norfolk, Va. He has a lot to sort through.
HORTON: Because at a certain point, you're just trying to figure out what needs to be done next, right? So you're focusing on this process. And as you open up that door, you learn a little more.
MCCAMMON: At Sentara's Norfolk General Hospital, officials are working out every detail of the logistics involved in rolling out this brand-new vaccine, one that has to be kept around 95 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Tim Jennings is Sentara's chief pharmacy officer.
TIM JENNINGS: We usually just deal with freezing temperatures, you know, a typical freezer. Our medications are not stored at this level of freezing. That's why we had to actually go out and, you know, acquire a special freezer for this.
MCCAMMON: The hospital system only has a few of these ultra-cold freezers. For sites that don't, there's dry ice. Jennings opens up a big blue bin full of it.
JENNINGS: They kind of look like little Cheez Doodles. But that's dry ice, which is frozen CO2.
MCCAMMON: There's little room for error here. The CDC says the vaccines must be monitored to make sure the temperatures remain stable every step of the way. And the vaccines are in short supply right now. The first shipment from Pfizer is expected to include only about 72,000 doses for all of Virginia, a state of more than 8 million people. Michelle Hood with the American Hospital Association says health care administrators across the country are gearing up for a major logistical undertaking.
MICHELLE HOOD: We've never done anything like this in the country or in the world as significant as this exercise is, and everything is new. So it's a grand experiment, isn't it?
MCCAMMON: The first vaccines will go mostly to front-line health care workers at the highest risk of exposure. Mary Morin is in charge of employee vaccination at Sentara, and she's got a lot to think about as well.
MARY MORIN: I did wake up last night. I'm going, oh, my God.
MCCAMMON: Morin has to turn CDC guidelines about who should be first in line for the coronavirus vaccine into a real-life plan for her hospital workers.
MORIN: The - a front door to a hospital is the emergency department. And that includes - you know, may have a security guard there. They're patient-facing. They're forward-facing. So it's the staff. It isn't just the nurses and the physicians.
MCCAMMON: Large studies indicate the Pfizer vaccine is about 95% effective with few side effects. But it is brand-new, and convincing people to take it may be a challenge. Unlike the flu shot, Sentara officials say the coronavirus vaccine will be optional for staff. At the hospital in Norfolk, Tim Jennings says he and his colleagues feel a huge sense of responsibility.
JENNINGS: And we realize that if we do this right, we could save thousands of lives, if not, you know, hundreds of thousands.
MCCAMMON: If and when the vaccine receives federal approval, officials say it could start being given to health care workers within days.
Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Norfolk, Va.
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