WILMINGTON—Funds from a University of North Carolina initiative will enable the stockpiling of 61 new freezers, designed to store Covid-19 vaccines at temperatures as low as -112 degrees Fahrenheit, at 15 universities around the state.
The added storage capabilities will assist state and local health officials in their effort to execute North Carolina’s vaccination plan in coming months. The University of North Carolina at Wilmington is set to acquire three new freezers — two large units and one small — boasting a total capacity of 114,800 two-milliliter vials.
The freezers are paid for by the NC Policy Collaboratory, a wing of UNC that facilitates the intersection of university research and government policy, with money appropriated by the N.C. General Assembly earmarked for pandemic response. In the 2020 Covid-19 Recovery Act, signed by Gov. Roy Cooper in early May, $29 million was allocated to the NC Policy Collaboratory for various public health measures.
“We were excited to receive confirmation that UNCW will be receiving three cold storage freezers through the NC Policy Collaborative,” Katrin Wesner-Harts, a UNCW administrator at the helm of pandemic response, noted in a written statement. “Not only will this allow the university to partner with the New Hanover County Health Department in the short term to assist with COVID vaccine storage and eventual distribution, but it will also provide equipment for our researchers to use for years to come.”
UNC System spokesperson Josh Ellis said the new freezers will serve multiple roles. At first, the gear allows universities to play a larger role alongside local health departments as vaccine distribution to the population begins in earnest.
Later on, having the freezers in-house will ease the process of vaccinating students. (While the timetable for college student vaccinations is still up in the air, various administrators and public health officials have guessed the process could begin as early as March or as late as May).
“There’s a lot of other people this can help before students,” Ellis said.
Finally, the freezers could eventually be called on for university research, outside of coronavirus-related projects, once the central goal of bolstering vaccine availability is fulfilled.
“The UNC System is uniquely suited to assist, and campuses have already reported being contacted by statewide and local health officials regarding the complex logistics involved in COVID-19 vaccine storage and distribution,” Jeffrey Warren, the collaboratory’s executive director, said in a press release. “Knowing sub-zero storage and transport capability at sub-zero temperatures is critically important to protecting our citizens, I am indebted to the purchasing team at UNC-Chapel Hill who executed the purchasing approvals in just under a week to help increase freezer capacity across each of our 15 research campuses.”
The purchase was a surprise to some officials in New Hanover County Public Health, who will oversee local vaccination plans based on statewide guidance. Internal county documents indicate the first wave of vaccinations — including first responders, long-term care staff and residents, and high-risk adults older than 65 — could involve anywhere between 3,000 and 20,000 vaccinations administered by county staff, according to fluid plans created in late November.
Vaccinations for college students are slated for Phase 3 in the four-phase plan. Phase 3 — encompassing frontline workers “in industries critical to societal functioning,” and students in K-12 and universities — could involve 6,500 to 65,000 vaccinations by county staff.
“Our public health team was not involved in the development of this initiative, but our Health Director is aware of it,” a New Hanover County spokesperson wrote in an email. “Vaccines held in freezer units on university campuses would fall under the purview of Public Health and be distributed at the direction of state and local public health officials. The understanding is that freezer units will support research of varying types once the pandemic is over and they are not needed for vaccine storage.”
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