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For the latest COVID-19 information, visit vcuhealth.org/covid-19 or Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU for pediatrics. For vaccine details, visit vcuhealth.org/covidvaccine.

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It’s here! COVID-19 vaccine arrives at VCU Medical Center

First doses to be administered to front-line workers today.

Rodney Stiltner opening box containing COVID-19 vaccine Rodney Stiltner and public health officer Sumayya Beekun open, inspect and document the shipment of COVID-19 vaccine that arrived Tuesday morning. (Photos: Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

By Esther Benenson

VCU Health’s first shipment of COVID-19 vaccine arrived by FedEx Tuesday morning, with the container’s critically needed cargo unpacked, inspected and placed in VCU Medical Center’s ultra-cold freezers by about 10 a.m.

VCU Health is one of only a few facilities in the Commonwealth that meet the equipment and storage requirements to safely receive and store the COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine must be stored at -80 C to preserve stability.

“As an academic medical center, we conduct research trials that require ultra-cold freezers to preserve the stability of the drugs being studied,” said Rodney Stiltner, director of pharmacy services at VCU Health Systems. “Our pharmacy staff will use special thermal gloves to remove the vaccine from the freezer in preparing each day’s dosage.”

Tuesday morning’s shipment contained about 4,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, packed in dry ice to maintain the frigid temperature.

Rodney Stiltner and Sumayya Beekun inspect the shipping container. 

Vaccine storage and set-up developed over several weeks

Pharmacy staff will start each vaccination day by moving trays of vaccine from the freezer to the refrigerator to thaw gradually over three hours. They will then add saline to the vaccine, dose it, prep the syringes and distribute them to the employee clinic.

Pharmacy staff will check in several times each day to determine how much to bring out. Once diluted, the vaccine is only good for six hours. “Our goal is to minimize or eliminate any waste,” Stiltner said. This could occur if they bring out too much vaccine for the number of people waiting.

If necessary, the vaccine can be thawed more quickly — only 30 minutes on the counter. Although safe to do so, Stiltner said they would generally thaw the vaccine in the refrigerator for greater stability.

Rodney Stiltner places trays of vaccine in the ultra-cold freezer.

Vaccinations to begin today

VCU Health will begin vaccinating high-risk front-line VCU Health medical workers today. The day’s vaccination schedule runs from noon to 5 p.m. The schedule is 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. next week, excluding the holidays. Hours may be expanded for additional medical workers after the holidays. Front-line medical workers sign up online for a designated time slot.

Phased distribution

VCU Health will offer the vaccine first to interested front-line medical workers so they can safely care for all of our patients during the pandemic. This includes those who provide care to known or suspected COVID-19 patients, such as in our COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit or our emergency department. It also includes employees who regularly work in long-term care facilities.

After that, distribution phases are flexible as we get a better understanding of availability and continue to learn more about the new vaccines. Our plan will include distributing the vaccine to an expanded pool of VCU Health employees, patients and hopefully, the broader community.

Though exact timing is uncertain, we will always make decisions with the safety of our team members, patients and the community in mind.

Learn more about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine and how we are storing and distributing the vaccine