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NM discards 75 doses of Pfizer vaccine

A freezer at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center is used Monday to store the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, which must be kept at extremely cold temperatures. The state discarded some vaccine doses sent to Clayton after a question arose about their temperature. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico discarded a 75-dose shipment of the new COVID-19 vaccine this week after a digital device showed it overheated on transport to a hospital in Clayton.

But the problem may have been a malfunction of the temperature-tracking device itself rather than faulty packing of the product, which must be kept at extremely low temperatures.

To be on the safe side, state officials said, they threw out the vaccine doses and sent a new shipment Wednesday to Union County General Hospital, about a four-hour drive northeast of Albuquerque.

The mix-up came as New Mexico received the final installment of its first batch of Pfizer coronavirus vaccine this week – 17,550 doses in all. They are largely going to front-line health care workers at risk of exposure to the disease.

It will take at least a month, however, before the vaccinations start to shape New Mexico’s COVID-19 case numbers. Full protection takes two shots, spaced three weeks apart.

A smart shipment device that was in the first shipment of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine that Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center received Monday December 14, 2020. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A forecast by Los Alamos National Laboratory said “vaccination will begin substantially affecting these curves in mid to late January.”

The doses thrown out Tuesday had already been delivered by Pfizer to New Mexico. The question about temperature arose later, during transportation from a Department of Health warehouse to Clayton.

A spokesman for Pfizer said the shipment to Clayton was “through redistribution channels not managed by Pfizer.” The company, he said, has extensive tracking systems in place to ensure no patient ever gets a “vaccine that may have been impacted while in transit during the delivery process.”

The problem appears to be isolated.

In a written statement, Matt Nerzig, a spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the state had made 18 vaccine shipments from a warehouse Tuesday and that only the one to Clayton “experienced a temperature excursion.”

The problem was “probably a malfunction of the digital data logger,” Nerzig said, not faulty packing of the vaccine.

“In light of the malfunction, and without the ability in this case to verify the accuracy of the vaccine’s temperature with a high level of confidence during transport, it was decided in the interests of safety to discard the product and resend a new shipment” Wednesday, he said.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines must be kept extremely cold. They are shipped with dry ice at temperatures near minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.

New Mexico, Nerzig said, is taking steps to prevent the problem from happening again by:

• Adjusting the digital temperature-tracking devices so they will alert personnel earlier, before the package is out of the appropriate range, to allow for a quicker response.

• Having immunization staff on call to help during transportation.

• Reviewing the placement of the digital loggers and other processes at Department of Health warehouses.

Vaccinations from the state shipments were underway Wednesday at Acoma and Laguna pueblos, with Picuris Pueblo to begin next week. Hospitals were also vaccinating frontline workers.

Troy Clark, president and CEO of the New Mexico Hospital Association, said he wasn’t aware of any other problems similar to those with the Clayton shipment.

Hospitals and the Department of Health, he said, had worked together ahead of time to prepare for the logistics of extremely cold storage.

But “we are sad to have had some vaccine be unusable,” Clark said.

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