Cold temperatures affect vaccine refrigeration
Thursday, Jan 23rd 2014

January's extreme cold temperatures have had a range of effects on a number of different areas, causing widespread power loss in some regions. Midway through the month, one healthcare organization was among those affected by interruptions in utility services, which nearly caused the loss of $30,000 in stored vaccines.

Salem News contributor Deanne Johnson reported that during a steep temperature drop on Jan. 14, the Columbiana County Health Department in Ohio lost power around 7:45 AM.  At first, the staff waited for the emergency backup generator, which usually starts in 30 seconds if power is knocked out, to turn on, but Health Commissioner Wes Vins said the mechanism never powered up.

"Vins said they determined the generator was frozen and even though they turn it on weekly to test it, the battery had grown so weak due to the cold that it was unable to start up," Johnson wrote.

This caused a serious threat to the department's supply of stored vaccines. According to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most vaccines need to be kept within the 35 and 46 degree Fahrenheit range. When a facility loses power, the temperature in its vaccine refrigerator or storage unit can potentially rise above this target zone, rendering vaccines ineffective.

After the department discovered that its regular backup generator was inoperable, they attempted to utilize a second portable generator. However, they soon found that the machine did not have the necessary power to run the vaccine refrigerator. During this time, county nurse Barb Knee told Salem News that temperatures did begin to increase in the vaccine storage unit, fueling worries that $30,000 worth of medicine could be lost. However, employees finally located a third generator, which was connected just in time to prevent the refrigerator from breaching the recommended temperature zone.

Once electricity service was restored at 1:30 that afternoon, staff members spent the entire next day going through the department's vaccine inventory to determine what was usable and what had to be discarded for safety reasons, Johnson stated. The Ohio Department of Health responded soon after, quarantining all vaccines in the affected refrigerator until it had the necessary manufacturing information.

"In the end, the county learned that as long as vaccines were not opened and did not fall out of the acceptable temperature range - which was most of them - they were safe to use," Johnson reported.

How to handle a power loss
The health department's scare is a reminder that vaccines can be affected by power loss. In the event that a location storing vaccines loses electricity access, the CDC recommends that all refrigerators and storage units remain closed to prevent internal temperatures from rising.

Additionally, staff members should be sure to monitor the temperature of these systems. Instead of opening the units, individuals should record the temperature as soon as possible after power comes back on to determine the maximum elevated temperature.

Furthermore, to prepare for these type of occasions, organizations should install a vaccine temperature monitor to oversee levels in storage units. This technology can also include a high temperature alarm that is capable of notifying employees if refrigerators go outside the target zone.