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The Athens City-County Health Department on West Union St.

Athens County’s ultra-cold freezers provide Athens and Southeast Ohio with efficient vaccine access

The Athens County Health Department now has ultra-cold freezers able to store both the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.

The city of Athens partnered with the county to use about $21,000 in CARES Act funding to purchase the ultra-cold freezers from Stirling Ultracold, located in The Plains. The city paid a third of the price, and the county paid the other two-thirds for the energy efficient freezers. With the combined funds, the city and county purchased two portable “shuttles” as well as one under the counter model that Jack Pepper, the Athens County Health Department administrator, estimates can hold up to 6,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“The city and the county, we're grateful … for them to step in and provide us with some funds to help offset the cost and really position Athens county and the region to be able to take any sort of vaccine that's available,” Pepper said. “There are certainly many local health departments around that don't have access to the ultra-cold storage, and that will impact their ability to take the vaccine.”

With the extra access these ultra-cold freezers provide, Athens could even serve as a center of distribution for parts of Southeastern Ohio, Athens Mayor Steve Patterson said. For now, the vaccine is being distributed at O'Bleness hospital, and Pepper said that the Athens County Health Department is on track to receive a shipment of the Moderna vaccine this week.

The portable chillers keep the temperature between -20 and -86 degrees fahrenheit, which allows the health department to transport both the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccine, Pepper said. 

“We don't have to be limited by what vaccine is available, and that's a huge win,” Pepper said.

The portable units are about the size of a regular cooler, Patterson said, and can be taken to vaccination sites around the county. 

After 9/11, the federal government enacted the PHEP, or Public Health Emergency Preparedness, cooperative agreement to help health departments stay prepared and trained for events like this, and Pepper said the Athens County Health Department is revisiting its emergency plans to prepare to distribute the vaccine.

The first of the vaccines will be going to emergency health providers, Pepper said, in accordance with the governor’s plans. 

Other groups included in Ohio’s Phase-1A vaccine groups are high-risk populations like healthcare workers who regularly work with COVID-19 patients, residents and staff at nursing homes, those who live in group homes with developmental needs and patients and staff at state psychiatric hospitals. 

Pepper said that the student population, excluding students who are included in earlier groups like those part of higher risk populations or healthcare workers, is likely to receive the vaccine sometime during the spring of 2021. 

Because the vaccine requires two doses, the larger amount of storage the freezers provide has an even greater importance, Patterson said.

“Everyone's going to have to go through two doses, and Pfizer is two to three weeks apart, Moderna is three to four weeks apart,” Patterson said. “We're gonna have to be able to stock and distribute a fair amount of that vaccine, so it'll be ongoing for quite some time.”

Although Patterson said he hopes there is not a need for such measures, he said that the freezers would also serve the county going forward in the event of another pandemic.

“These deep freezers are pretty hearty and will last decades, certainly 10 years, if not longer,” Patterson said. “I think that they can certainly continue to use these at the health department. I hate to even say this, but who knows if and when another pandemic were to occur. I say that with a large amount of trepidation, because I don't want to see one again.”

Although the vaccines provide a means for fighting against the spread of the virus, Patterson said that people shouldn’t relax their pandemic precautions just yet.

“Even if someone has been vaccinated, you could still be exposed to someone who has not been vaccinated and is COVID-19 positive,” Patterson said. “Then you yourself could unwittingly …  transmit it to somebody else, even though you have been vaccinated against it. So I just want everyone to continue to have a high level of vigilance.”


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