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Many logistical challenges for DoH with the shipping and storage of vaccine

Dr. Aifili John Tufa

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Getting healthcare workers and first responders vaccinated within a certain timeframe with the first shipment of the COVID-19 vaccine arriving tomorrow, will depend on whether the minus 70 Celsius temperature is maintained throughout the shipping process from the manufacturer — which is Pfizer Inc. — to American Samoa.

“The challenge is, we have to make sure that the shipment maintained the minus 70 Celsius. If it doesn't, we have only five days to administer the vaccine,” Health Department Senior Epidemiologist, Dr. Aifili John Tufa, emphasized during the DoH presentation at Wednesday’s cabinet meeting, at the Gov. H. Lee Auditorium.

He pointed out the logistical challenges that DoH is dealing with for the shipping and storage of the vaccine, with the first shipment of 3,900 doses — for the first and second doses — arriving tomorrow.

Dr. Tufa shared information on the shipping process, similar to information health officials shared with reporters during a news conference earlier this week. The vaccine will arrive in a “thermal shipper” box, which has the ability to maintain a temperature — minus 70 degrees Celsius — until it can be transferred to an “ultra low-freezer” — and both DoH and LBJ Medical Center have these freezers.

Dr. Tufa told the cabinet meeting that the vaccine is being shipped directly from Pfizer to the local DoH through Pritchard’s Airport Service — a ground service handling company at Pago Pago International Airport — which handles shipments from the US Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC).

DoH is getting support from the Department of Public Safety, making sure that the vaccine upon arrival at the airport is immediately transported by police escort to the DoH laboratory at the Tafuna Community Health Center, where DoH’s “ultra low-freezer” is located.

“The reason we’re escorting the shipment is because, there’s time sensitivity of when it arrives and needs to be transferred to the minus 70 Celsius freezers,” he said, adding that the majority of the shipment will be held at the lab.

DoH’s lab will administer the vaccine for its first responders and healthcare workers, as well as those from other ASG agencies and departments, while LBJ will handled its first responders and health care workers.

“We’re working very closely with customs to make sure that when the vaccines come in, it cannot be opened at the airport, we want to make sure that Customs comes with us to the Tafuna lab so they can do their clearing process,” Dr. Tufa explained.

At the lab, “we’ll open the box... so that we can transfer the vaccines directly into our freezer. We have only three minutes from the time we open this box for it to be transferred to the minus 70 Celsius freezer,” he said.

“Because there’s some challenge surrounding the shipment of these vaccines,” Dr. Tufa explained that DoH has developed two plans. One plan is called “Operation Five Days” —  if the “thermal shipper” box arrives and the minus 70 Celsius temperature is not maintained.

If this is the case, then “we’re going to start right away” with vaccinations on Sunday, the day after the shipment arrives, he said.

When all first responders and healthcare workers are vaccinated, “we will continue on with our tiers” with the next tier, or priority, which includes non-medical, but essential personnel, according to Dr. Tufa, who pointed out that a briefing of all first responders was scheduled this past Wednesday afternoon.

He went on to explain that if the shipment arrives with maintained temperature and then the vaccine can be stored up to six months — then “Operation Relief” is implemented.

“Instead of starting right away, we’re proposing to start this operation after Christmas on Dec. 27th,” he said. ”This will give Health Department a little bit more time to push out the message to the community, to conduct more training, making sure that all of the physicians are fully aware of how to administer the vaccine, the storage process, and transportation.”

“Although we have to rush if the vaccines arrive here not within the minus 70 Celsius temperature, we have no choice but to carry out the vaccinations within five days,” he said. “But if we have the chance of doing extra training and informing our community about the vaccine, we will take that.”

He told the cabinet meeting, which was also aired live that same morning on KVZK-TV, that following meetings with the Operation Warp Speed, the federal government and CDC, “we’re looking at — after all the allocations have been given and the orders have been made — we’re expecting enough doses for 33,000 individuals, two doses per individual, for American Samoa.”

He explained that the 33,000 number is based on the territory’s estimated population of those who are 18-years and older.

(Samoa News notes that the latest update information including the 3,900 doses arriving tomorrow, was the result of a Zoom meeting held Tuesday, between the governor and health officials with leaders of the federal Operation Warp Speed group.)

According to the health official, DoH launched on Tuesday a mass media campaign to inform everyone about the vaccine. “I know there’s a lot of questions out there about safety [of the vaccine] and there’s groups right now speaking against the vaccine.”

But, “we have a good team of health professionals here that are gathering all the information to put out so we can provide you with the most accurate information,” he said and urged the public to get their information from “creditable sources” such as the World Health Organization, CDC, LBJ and DoH.

He said DoH is “more than happy to sit down and have a conversation” with groups, departments and others, who have questions about the vaccine, so a complete explanation and information is provided to them.

He called on everyone in the community to “work together” with the government on the vaccination process, as the pandemic is still ongoing and it’s serious.