Innova U535

Whitman College’s Innova U535 ultra low temperature freezer sits at Providence St. Mary’s Medical Center in Walla Walla to store Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccines at minus-80 degrees Celsius.

When the first Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines began arriving in Walla Walla to immunize health care workers in December, logistics had to be figured out.

One major need was an ultra-low temperature freezer to store the vaccines. Providence St. Mary Medical Center ordered such a freezer — one that keeps products at minus-80 degrees Celsius — but soon found out it could not be delivered until the end of January.

Credit two Whitman College biology professors for taking action to remedy the problem.

Jim Russo and Brit Moss had been discussing with students why vaccines needed to be kept at such a low temperature. This prompted them to wonder if the local hospital had such a freezer.

“Those freezers are specialized freezers that are not widely available,” Moss said. “But we had several available at Whitman for research purposes.”

They decided to see if they would be able to free one of them up, just in case one was needed by the hospital.

“We realized we could probably rearrange how things are stored in our freezers in order to empty one of them if it turned out that (The Department of) Community Health or Providence St. Mary’s was in need of one,” Moss said.

One of Russo’s former students is Michele Roberts, director of immunization at the Washington Department of Health.

Roberts was a guest in one of Russo’s classes in November.

“She said one of their biggest problems was figuring out how they were going to distribute the vaccine because of this temperature requirement,” Russo said.

Russo said he and Moss then worked during the week of Thanksgiving and determined they had enough space to clear out one of their freezers. So, he wrote to Roberts in December and said they could provide one.

She immediately put him into contact with Dalari Allington, Providence St. Mary’s director of pharmacy. Arrangements were then made to transport the freezer — an Innova U535 — to the hospital.

Russo said figuring out how to move items they had in the freezer took some work. The other freezer they were moving the items to was in another building.

He said a cold day made the process a bit easier and the items were moved without incident.

Russo and Moss said the freezer being loaned to Providence had to be tested for three days to make sure it could hold its temperature — minus-80 degrees Celsius is equal to minus-112 degrees Fahrenheit. Once that was confirmed, Providence St. Mary Medical Center started using the freezer to store vaccines.

“We’re grateful that Whitman offered up the freezer knowing that it could be helpful,” said Emily Volland, a spokesperson for Providence. “And it certainly has been.”

Jeremy Burnham can be reached at jeremyburnham@wwub.com or 509-526-8321.

Reporter

Jeremy Burnham covers education and Columbia County for the Union-Bulletin. He is a recent graduate of Eastern Washington University, where he studied journalism, and is an Eastern Eagle fanatic.