On Christmas Day as heavy winds and rain battered the state, a power outage forced a Connecticut health care provider to stand up an unscheduled COVID vaccination clinic or see hundreds of doses go to waste.
That morning, an employee of the Community Health Center was alerted to a power failure at the group’s Waterbury location where more than 200 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine were being stored under refrigeration, said Leslie Gianelli, the center’s vice president of communications. In Waterbury, about 280 electricity customers lost power during the storm, according to a spokesperson for Eversource Energy.
Despite the holiday, Gianelli said senior staff members drove through the storm to the closed Waterbury office and found the building locked up and without power. With no electricity, the locked doors’ keycard readers wouldn’t respond. A physical key had to be rounded up.
Of the two vaccines approved emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration, the Moderna vaccine has more forgiving temperature requirements. It must be stored at between -25°C and -15°C. The other vaccine, developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, must be kept much colder at between -80°C and -60°C.
But by the time the center’s staff got access to their Moderna vaccine vials at 9 a.m. Christmas morning, they found the liquid had already exceeded the maximum temperature for storage. That meant it had to be administered within the next 12 hours or be thrown away as unsafe.
“The prospect of even one dose being wasted is one dose too many,” Gianelli said Wednesday. The Community Health Center decided to stand up a clinic on Christmas and begin vaccinating staff. “Christmas Day was [supposed to be] a day off, but you do what you have to do.”
They transported the vials to Middletown, where a clinic was planned for the next day, and put out a call to everyone scheduled to receive the vaccine.
“There were many challenges, the least of which was that we were pulling people away from their families on an important holiday,” she said.
Although people came from all over the state to receive the vaccine that day, Gianelli said by about 6 p.m. it was clear there would still be leftover doses. Rather than throw the additional doses away, she said they vaccinated family members who showed up.
“Because it was Christmas Day, some staff brought family members. They brought parents and spouses,” she said. As best they could, staff tried to prioritize older people and people who worked in the health care field, she said. By 9 p.m., when the vials hit their 12-hour expiration, they had distributed all the doses. “We didn’t waste one,” she said.
Both versions of the vaccine require two doses, spaced several weeks apart, to be effective. Doses of the Moderna vaccine should be separated by about 28 days. Gianelli said everyone who received their first dose on Christmas will be scheduled to receive their second dose at the appropriate time.
On Wednesday, during his last COVID press briefing of the year, Gov. Ned Lamont said he was pleased with Connecticut’s rollout of the vaccine. So far, 54,727 people, mostly health care workers, emergency responders, and nursing home residents, have received their first doses in Connecticut.
A few hundred of them received it on a stormy Christmas at an impromptu clinic forced by a power outage. Gianelli said she was proud of the effort by the Community Health Center.
“To have so many of our staff be so willing to basically drop everything on Christmas—and it was a horrible day. It was pouring rain, windy, just a really terrible day but it really exemplifies what CHC is all about a real get-it-done, can-do spirit,” she said.