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Ultra-cold vaccine freezers come to UNC schools

Dr. Jeffrey Warren, Executive Director of the NC Policy Collaboratory, labels a mobile freezer unit for Winston-Salem State University. Dr. Jeffrey Warren, Executive Director of the NC Policy Collaboratory, labels a mobile freezer unit for Winston-Salem State University.

New mobile freezers capable of capable of safely storing and transporting COVID-19 vaccine vials will soon arrive at all 15 research institutions within the UNC System, including Western Carolina University.

WCU is also one of three UNC institutions — along with N.C. A&T State and UNC Pembroke — that will provide a public clinic for COVID-19 vaccinations.

“University officials are working closely with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and NC Emergency Management, and will provide more details as they become available,” said a statement from the university.

The N.C. Division of Emergency Management left the UNC-Chapel Hill loading dock this morning and currently is transporting 23 mobile cold-storage units throughout state in support of Operation Deep Freeze.  

The new freezers, provided by the N.C. Policy Collaboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, are part of a broader effort to increase North Carolina’s total vaccine cold-storage capacity by 1.86 million two-milliliter vials. 

The 15 research institutions within the UNC System will receive a total of 62 new freezers capable of safely storing COVID-19 vaccines at temperatures as low as -80 Celsius (-112 Fahrenheit), which means these institutions will be able to handle the Pfizer vaccine. The vaccine requires temperatures between -60 and -80 degrees Celsius for long-term storage.  A combination of 32 large freezers, 1 mid-sized freezer, and 29 smaller mobile units will add flexibility for transport and storage of vaccines across the state. 

The freezers will support state and local public health agencies, hospitals and pharmacies with the critical logistics of sub-zero storage and subsequent distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in North Carolina.  Vaccines stored at UNC institutions will be distributed according to the State’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan at the direction of state and local public health officials. UNC campuses that serve rural areas and underserved populations will receive additional mobile freezer units, including the state’s six historically minority-serving institutions.

Stirling Ultracold, the manufacturer of the freezers, agreed to offer a phased delivery of multiple shipments at no additional cost to expedite vaccine-related logistics across the UNC System. Stirling also worked with the Collaboratory to deliver the 29 mobile shuttles, which can provide key logistical cold-storage support in rural counties, two months ahead of schedule.  VWR Scientific, who is the exclusive sales representative for the larger freezers, has also worked with the Collaboratory to identify and deploy loaner units at no charge to assist campuses and their local health partners.

The NC Policy Collaboratory was established by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2016 to utilize and disseminate research expertise across the University of North Carolina System for practical use by state and local government. In May 2020, state lawmakers appropriated $29 million to the Collaboratory to develop and oversee a pan-campus COVID-19 research portfolio that has resulted in more than 85 individual projects across 14 UNC System campuses. The $603,447.22 freezer grant came from these funds.

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