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Delicate COVID-19 vaccines slow rollout — leading to shots given out of turn or, worse, wasted

Rachana Pradhan, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

For Heather Suri, a registered nurse in Virginia, the race to vaccinate Americans against COVID-19 has thrown up some unprecedented obstacles.

The vaccines themselves are delicate and require a fair bit of focus over time. Consider Moderna’s instructions for preparing its doses: Select the number of shots that will be given. Thaw the vials for 2.5 hours in a refrigerator set between 36 and 46 degrees. Then rest them at room temperature for 15 minutes. Do not refreeze. Swirl gently between each withdrawal. Do not shake. Inspect each vial for particulate matter or discoloration. Store any unused vaccine in refrigeration.

And then there’s this: Once open, a vial is good for only six hours. As vaccines go, that’s not very long. Some flu vaccine keeps almost a month.

“This is very different, administering this vaccine. The process, it takes a whole lot longer than any mass vaccination event that I’ve been involved with,” said Suri, a member of the Loudoun Medical Reserve Corps who joined her first clinic Dec. 28, to vaccinate first responders.

Of the first two COVID-19 vaccines on the market, Moderna’s is considered more user-friendly. Pfizer-BioNTech’s shot must be stored in specialized freezers at 94 degrees below zero. Once out of deep freeze, it lasts just five days, compared with 30 days for Moderna’s.

One thing the shots have in common: They last a paltry six hours once the first dose is removed from a vial. That short shelf life raises the stakes for the largest vaccination effort in U.S. history by forcing clinicians to anticipate the exact number of doses they’ll need each day. If they don’t get it right, precious stores of vaccine may go to waste.

 

During one recent clinic over several hours, Suri estimated she gave “maybe 25” shots, many fewer than the number of flu shots she’s given during similar clinics over the years.

With COVID-19, she said, “the vaccine itself slows things down.”

The slow rollout has frustrated people who at Thanksgiving imagined millions of vaccines in arms by Christmas. Promises that 20 million would be vaccinated by New Year’s fell well short: Just 2.8 million had the first of two required shots by the end of December, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Public health officials say many factors are at play, including a shortage of workers trained to administer shots, COVID-19 protocols that require physical distancing at clinics and vaccine allocation numbers from the federal government that fluctuate by the week.

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