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Colorado Tests Ability To Deliver Vaccine To A Remote Hospital

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Across the country, states are preparing to receive the first doses of Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine, and it must be kept at an ultra-cold temperature. Each state faces its own particular challenges to get the vaccine to everyone who needs it. And in Colorado, that could mean delivering it to small towns high in the Rocky Mountains. Not wanting to take chances, officials created a distribution test run, and Colorado Public Radio's Bente Birkeland rode along.

BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: In some ways, it was just a regular day on the job for medical courier Leo Gomez. He placed a cardboard box with precious cargo into the back of his small white car at Denver International Airport and headed for a hospital. But it's not every day Gomez gets a pair of state patrol cars as an escort. That's because this day was extraordinary. He was part of a team delivering a mock shipment of the coronavirus vaccine to Vail Health Hospital.

LEO GOMEZ: Hello.

KIMBERLY FLYNN: I'm Kimberly. I'm the director of safety and security here at Vail Health.

GOMEZ: I'm Leo Gomez. I'm with the Swift Courier Services. And we got the COVID vaccine here for you.

FLYNN: Fantastic - nice to meet you. So we have a card over here...

BIRKELAND: Vail is one of eight regional hubs the state has designated to receive the Pfizer vaccine.

FLYNN: So first when you come in, we are going to have you screen for COVID first, and then we'll make our way on over to the pharmacy.

GOMEZ: Sounds good.

FLYNN: All right.

GOMEZ: It's amazing, to be completely truthful, just being part of the teams that have to deliver the vaccine.

BIRKELAND: Gomez says delivering the coronavirus vaccine is in many ways similar to delivering human organs, which also need to be moved quickly and stored at a certain temperature.

GOMEZ: And the value of the cargo - right now, it's just having to deliver the vaccine that everybody's looking for is definitely a high-value item right now.

BIRKELAND: Storing the vaccine is a challenge. It has to be kept in an ultra-cold specialty freezer, something the Vail Hospital has. Jessica Peterson is a pharmacy manager and places the test vaccine tray into the freezer.

JESSICA PETERSON: And that's where we're going to store them until we're ready to administer them or redistribute them to another facility.

BIRKELAND: Pretty small.

PETERSON: It is, yeah. This is just 1 cubic foot.

BIRKELAND: Once the vaccine is in a regular refrigerator, it must be used within five days. Without careful coordination, doses could expire and go to waste. Scott Sherman is the Colorado National Guard general directing the state's vaccine task force. He says it'll be more challenging to get the vaccine to doctors in smaller, remote places in the right quantity and time frame.

SCOTT SHERMAN: Because they don't have ultra-cold freezers to store it for long periods.

BIRKELAND: By Colorado standards, Vail is not necessarily remote, but it is 120 miles from Denver's airport, over a 10,000-foot pass on the Continental Divide. Still, there are dozens of towns in the mountains that aren't as reachable, especially in the winter.

SHERMAN: The mountains and the weather will always present unique challenges that we'll have to work through. Depending if, you know, mountain passes are closed down, we'll have to work around that.

BIRKELAND: State health officials say the goal of this trial was to review every step of the process, all the way to a mock patient receiving a shot of the pretend vaccine - actually saline.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Honestly, I couldn't even feel it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That's because it's the technique.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Laughter) It's the impeccable needle skills of Diane.

BIRKELAND: Colorado's initial Pfizer vaccine shipment will contain 46,800 doses slated for the first wave of front-line health care workers. But the state expects it will be several more months until it has a sufficient number of doses to really start to see a broader impact on coronavirus immunity. For NPR News, I'm Bente Birkeland in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRENCH 79'S "BETWEEN THE BUTTONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.