Karen Houseknecht opened the email and read what could have been a line from a spy novel.

The state of Maine needed help from the University of New England and the matter had to be kept strictly confidential.

It was Tuesday, Nov. 17, and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention needed an untold number of ultra-cold freezers by that Friday. An initial shipment of COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer was expected to be delivered to Maine the following Monday and it had to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit).

Delivery of the first 12,675 Pfizer doses was delayed to next week, at the earliest, but UNE is among several Maine colleges and universities that have responded to the agency’s call to action and loaned the now hard-to-find freezers to the statewide vaccine rollout.

On moving day, John Reid, left, facilities manager at the University of New England, stands with Karen Houseknecht, UNE’s associate provost for research, and Steven Boucouvalis, emergency operations coordinator with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The ultra-cold freezer was delivered to a Maine CDC facility in a location that’s being kept secret for security reasons. Photo courtesy of Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention

It’s one piece of a massive mobilization that includes hospitals, long-term care facilities and frontline workers across Maine. College professors, administrators and facilities crews worked with hospital and state officials to carefully move the large and somewhat fragile appliances, sometimes with military precision. The cost-saving collaboration – they have lent the freezers to the state or the hospitals at no cost – gave those involved a sense of pitching in for the greater good and highlighted the role that science plays in Maine’s economy and our everyday lives.

Houseknecht, a pharmacology professor and associate provost for research, knew UNE had several ultra-cold freezers on its campuses in Portland and Biddeford. But lending one of them to the Maine CDC and keeping it confidential would be a challenge. Like many during this grim pandemic, she found a bit of humor in a serious effort.

“I started calling it Operation Penguin,” Houseknecht recalled. “I had to tell a couple of people, and they were sworn to secrecy. I had to figure out how we could empty a freezer and load it and keep it a secret. It wasn’t easy, but we got it done.”

Ultra-cold freezers loaned by UNE, Southern Maine Community College and Colby College are now at a Maine CDC facility, the location of which is kept secret for security reasons, and is why Houseknecht and her colleagues were asked to keep their efforts confidential, said Robert Long, agency spokesman.

The ultra-cold freezer that the University of New England has lent from its pharmacy school in Portland, installed at a secure facility operated by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Photo courtesy of Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Bates College has lent three ultra-cold freezers to store the Pfizer vaccine: two to Central Maine Medical Center and one to St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, both in Lewiston. Unity College also offered freezer capacity that will be incorporated into the state’s vaccination program, Long said.

The loans of freezers that can weigh more than 600 pounds – twice as much as the average refrigerator – and cost over $20,000 “could play an important part in ensuring that Maine has adequate capacity to store Pfizer vaccine doses upon their arrival in Maine,” Long said.

So far, the Maine CDC has secured COVID-19 vaccine storage capacity in at least 14 ultra-cold freezers of varying sizes across the state. That includes three at its own facility that can each hold at least 10,000 doses, a conservative estimate based on how federal officials have described vaccine packaging, Long said.

Long said the Press Herald would have to contact other facilities around the state to get the exact number of freezers and their capacity to hold Pfizer doses. While the Maine CDC may not know precisely how many freezers are now ready to receive the vaccine, Long said the state has capacity for the number of Pfizer vaccine doses expected to arrive once deliveries begin, as soon as next week.

“We have enough to accommodate the number of Pfizer vaccine doses projected to come to Maine, with the capacity to add more storage if the number of doses increases,” Long said.

The Maine CDC expects to receive 12,675 doses of the Pfizer vaccine each week for three weeks after the FDA grants emergency authorization, a total of 38,025 doses that need to be stored in the ultra-cold freezers. It also expects 24,200 doses of the Moderna vaccine the first week it’s available and 10,700 doses the week after that.

Both vaccines require a second dose to be fully effective, but only the Pfizer vaccine requires ultra-cold storage. Exactly where each shipment will be stored and when additional doses will arrive in Maine are unclear.

That lack of clarity prompted Maine’s congressional delegation to send a letter Thursday to Alex Azar, the Trump administration’s health and human services secretary, urging transparency in the allocation of vaccines to the states.

ultra-cold freezer

The interior of the Stirling Ultracold freezer that the University of New England has lent to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to store Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. Photo courtesy of University of New England

“It is imperative that states have accurate and transparent information about vaccine allocations,” Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden said in the letter.

The vaccines are expected to arrive in Maine and the other states within days of their approval. The Pfizer vaccine, which was endorsed by a key advisory panel Thursday and is likely to receive authorization within days, will be shipped on dry ice, CDC officials said.

The initial allocation will be administered to front-line health care workers and residents of skilled nursing and long-term care facilities, groups that have been hard hit by COVID-19.

Last week, the Maine CDC announced that 5,850 Pfizer doses will be distributed among six vaccine storage locations with ultra-cold freezers across the state: CMMC in Lewiston, Maine Medical Center and Northern Light Mercy Hospital in Portland, Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Northern Light A.R. Gould Hospital in Presque Isle and the Maine CDC facility.

Each facility will receive 975 doses in the first week. The remaining 6,825 doses of the initial shipment will be administered to residents of long-term care facilities under an agreement with elder care facilities and pharmacies, the Maine CDC said.

Maine had 75,000 health care workers with direct patient contact and 5,800 residents of nursing facilities in 2019, according to a study released this week by the Kaiser Family Foundation. It isn’t clear how many Mainers are living in other types of long-term care facilities.

Although ultra-cold freezers are common equipment in hospitals, pharmacies, research laboratories and elsewhere, they have become a scarce commodity in advance of the vaccine rollout. Maine Med recently purchased two additional ultra-cold freezers and EMMC has purchased four to augment its existing equipment, but manufacturers are reporting empty warehouses and order backlogs.

So, the colleges have saved state and hospital officials from scrambling to fill a critical need, and they have saved Maine taxpayers thousands of dollars.

“But even if I had a bucket of money to buy these freezers, I couldn’t have ordered one and had it here on time,” said Bruce Campbell, pharmacy director at CMMC in Lewiston.

Bates has loaned CMMC a 16-cubic-foot capacity upright freezer and a 10-cubic-foot chest-style freezer, significantly augmenting the 2 cubic feet of space the hospital had available in its own ultra-cold freezers, Campbell said.

The two freezers have been set up inside the hospital’s secure pharmacy department, where facilities staff ran new circuits with dedicated power for each appliance and set up an alarm system to monitor the temperature.

Compared to typical home freezers, which chill to minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit), ultra-cold freezers can store materials at minus 80 degrees Celsius (minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit).

Campbell, who grew up in Lewiston and graduated from Bates, said working on the freezer loan agreement inspired pride in his alma mater, his co-workers and his community.

“Now, if the federal government needs us to store vaccine, we’re positioned to do that,” Campbell said. “These freezers gave people (I work with) a sense of hope in a difficult time. These freezers are going to hold the drug that’s going to help get us over this public health crisis.”

The ultra-cold freezer that the University of New England has lent to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to store Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. Photo courtesy of University of New England

The idea of lending ultra-cold freezers to CMMC germinated among the faculty and administration at Bates.

Brett Huggett, a biology professor and plant physiologist at Bates, regularly listens to the Maine CDC briefings and heard Dr. Nirav Shah, the agency’s director, talk about the need for ultra-cold storage for the Pfizer vaccine.

Huggett reached out to Geoff Swift, the college’s vice president of finance and administration, who reached out to other faculty members. After consolidating research samples stored in various ultra-cold freezers across the campus, they offered CMMC and St. Mary’s their pick of five units.

CMMC chose its units from the chemistry and neuroscience departments, and St. Mary’s borrowed an 18-cubic-foot So-Low upright freezer from the biology department.

“I’m in between research projects right now,” Huggett said, “so I was able to consolidate my research samples of trees and other materials into other freezers in the biology department and free up one freezer to be loaned.”

Huggett said he’s pleased the loan effort is working out.

“If we want to turn the tide on this pandemic, we need to act locally,” he said.

St. Mary’s facilities crew had to remove a door in order to move the freezer into the pharmacy department last Monday, said Vahid Rohani, the hospital’s pharmacy director.

“(The freezer) gives us ample space to store vaccines from Pfizer,” Rohani said.

Whether St. Mary’s is asked to store the Pfizer vaccine remains to be seen.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about vaccine distribution,” Rohani said. “Right now I know we are ready to receive Pfizer vaccine if they send it to us.”

Southern Maine Community College in South Portland offered one of its ultra-cold freezers to the Maine CDC after Shah mentioned the need during a virtual meeting of the Bioscience Association of Maine on Nov. 6.

Listening in was Elizabeth Ehrenfeld, an adjunct science professor who is a member of the trade association that represents the state’s biotech industry. She came to Maine 30 years ago to work for Idexx in Westbrook as a scientist leading the development of diagnostics for food safety.

Today, some of her SMCC students are producing COVID-19 testing products at Idexx and Abbott Laboratories, she said, while others are producing Moderna’s vaccine at Lonza in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Ehrenfeld knew SMCC had two ultra-cold freezers, in its marine science and biotech labs, and neither was filled to capacity. A team including Maine National Guard members picked up one of the freezers on Nov. 20.

“This helps us do our part,” Ehrenfeld said. “We are training the workforce for the biotech industry in Maine. This pandemic is showing the importance of science in our day-to-day lives, specifically microbiology and epidemiology.”

UNE also delivered its ultra-cold freezer to the Maine CDC on Nov. 20, Houseknecht said. It’s a 27-cubic-foot Stirling Ultracold from the university’s School of Pharmacy in Portland. In the days leading up to the move, university staff helped to prepare the freezer, moving research materials into other freezers, and using dry ice to preserve the most precious samples.

“It was a big logistical challenge, because none of us has been through a pandemic before,” said Houseknecht, who previously worked in drug discovery at Pfizer. “But that’s what people do around here. You figure stuff out.”

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