CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. –  first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine could be available in less than two weeks, according to Tennessee health officials.

But the public will have to wait. Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said health care workers and patients in long-term care facilities will be the first in line. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Health said the Pfizer vaccine could roll out as early as December 15th, while the Moderna vaccine would be available a week later. Both of these vaccines are still waiting for emergency authorization from the FDA. 

Katie Duffy is the senior director of pharmacy at Erlanger Health System.

She said a small group has been meeting to make preparations ahead of the arrival of the first doses.

“It’s definitely an event that no one has really ever prepared for before,” Duffy explained.

 The Pfizer vaccine must be kept at -70 degrees Celsius, which is colder than winters in Antarctica.

“We were instructed very early on by the department of health and the companies not to purchase the sub-zero freezers or the ultra-cold freezers because it [Pfizer] will be shipped in containers with dry ice so the temperature can be maintained,” Duffy explained.

A spokesperson for Pfizer sent WRCB a picture of what the vaccines will be shipped in saying, “The thermal shipper can also be used as a temporary storage unit by refilling with dry ice every five days for up to 30 days of storage.”

She said they will be in charge of replacing the dry ice on a scheduled basis without financial support from the state or county.

Once they receive the shipment, the vaccine will need to be thawed before it’s used. 
“It takes approximately 30 minutes to thaw at room temperature,” Duffy said. “So part of our plan is to access the number of our employees that actually want the vaccines so we can somewhat look ahead to know how many we will want to thaw at a certain time frame.”
While the Moderna vaccine arrives frozen as well, it does not require the sub-zero temperature. 
It requires -20 degrees Celsius, which is more like a typical freezer. 
Both of these vaccines will require a second dose 21 days after the first. Once you get it, Duffy said it’s not an excuse to let your guard down.

“I think one of the fears that we have is that once the vaccine is here, everyone is going to think that it’s okay to no longer mask or that we can go back to life as normal, and I think that it’s very important to just remember that this is just the first step in all of this and to see where the vaccine gets us.”