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UT Health pharmacist protects COVID-19 vaccine in winter weather


When Melissa Maeker, director of pharmacy for UT Health North Campus Tyler, saw the weather forecast late last week, she went into planning mode. As with previous ice storms, she planned to stay at the pharmacy for a few nights so she could still work and wouldn’t have to risk being on dangerous, icy roadways.

But this time, there was a new element added to her preparations – making sure power remained for the precious COVID-19 vaccine being kept in an ultracold freezer at the pharmacy.

“I went in Sunday afternoon with the intention of staying a few nights,” Maeker said with a laugh on Friday, her first day home. “In situations like these, I know a lot of things will come up where you have to think outside the box and act quickly. That’s my job; to be there and make sure the pharmacy remains flexible in different scenarios.”

One of Maeker’s top priorities was making sure there were no power interruptions to the ultracold freezer storing the COVID-19 vaccines. She slept on a cot in her office to ensure she would hear the alarm that is programmed to sound if the freezer temperature begins to rise.

Luckily, the pharmacy didn’t lose power, but Maeker faced a dilemma with vaccines possibly going to waste after the week’s vaccine clinics were canceled due to inclement weather. Once the vaccine vial is removed from ultracold storage, it can remain in a regular refrigerator for five days. After last Saturday’s vaccine clinic, there were four vials containing about 20 doses left in the regular refrigerator.

“Normally, that would not be a big deal. We would have used them first thing Monday morning,” Maeker said. But when treacherous road conditions resulted in closure of vaccine clinics for the entire week, “It dawned on me we’ve got a problem because they were going to expire Thursday afternoon. We don’t want to waste any dose – it’s precious.”

Maeker put out a query and found people who qualified for the vaccine who were either at the hospital or could get to the hospital. “Jessica, an ER nurse, was willing to administer the doses, so I took a couple of pharmacy staff over to the vaccine clinic and together, we were able to administer all the doses,” she said. “I really didn’t think we could pull that off. If we could’ve administered one vial’s doses, I would have considered it a success, but to get four vials administered was just amazing.”

About UT Health East Texas

UT Health East Texas provides care to thousands of patients each year through an extensive regional network that includes 10 hospitals, more than 50 clinics, the Olympic Plaza Tower, 13 regional rehabilitation facilities, two freestanding emergency centers, regional home health services covering 41 counties, an EMS fleet of more than 50 ambulances and four helicopters, and a comprehensive seven-trauma center care network, including the region’s only Level 1 trauma facility.

As a partner with The University of Texas System, UT Health East Texas is uniquely positioned to provide patients with access to leading-edge research and clinical therapies while training and educating the next generation of physicians and other health professionals. The nationally recognized UT System also includes UT MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, as well as three other major university medical centers located throughout the state.