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State programs join forces to safeguard vaccine supply

In early 2011, Oregon’s Health Security, Preparedness and Response program (HSPR) and the Oregon Immunization Program (OIP) joined forces to help local health departments, tribes and state agencies prepare for the unexpected. In the world of immunization, one thing is certain – vaccines must be stored and handled very carefully. Medical errors from wrongly stored vaccines in 2009 cost Oregon private and public providers an estimated $9.4 million in unrecoverable costs, plus an additional $500,000 to replace actual vaccines. To keep them at the perfect temperature, even during a power failure, clinics need lab-grade refrigerators and generators. This equipment is expensive, and many local agencies can’t afford it. When the federal government offered $400,000 in Public Health Emergency Resources (PHER), Oregon Public Health leaped at the opportunity.

Alison Alexander, project coordinator for the state, polled local health departments, tribes and selected state agencies (such as the Department of Corrections, Oregon State Hospital and Oregon Youth Authority) to determine what equipment they needed most. Many of the agencies needed generators, which involved not just the generator, but arranging for electrical work and concrete slab production. The agencies that didn’t need a generator had a “shopping list” from which to choose, including lab refrigerators with the appropriate temperature range, portable refrigerators, thermometers and alarm systems.

The public agencies had the opportunity to share the vaccine storage equipment with private entities within their jurisdictions. The project took several months and many hands to complete, and the final amount of PHER funds used totaled $590,000. Peterson Machinery in Portland, for example, scoured the entire country looking for the perfect generators to meet specifications for each site in order to meet the deadline. The state called upon several local contractors and electricians to install the generators quickly, within a matter of weeks. The generators and most other equipment were in place and operating by the end of July 2011.

“Our new generator is absolutely beautiful,” said Gretchen Gantz, Lincoln County Health and Human Services management and compliance analyst. “I appreciate not having to come down when the power goes out to move the vaccine over into coolers and transport to the jail which always seems to happen in the middle of the night when it’s raining and blowing.” Teri Thalhofer, North Central (Wasco-Sherman-Gilliam counties) Public Health District manager said the generator is a fabulous asset to their health department. “There were many challenges in the process and it took the efforts of all to move forward. I think we all learned something in the process.” Oregon Public Health seized an opportunity, and now the state’s vaccine supply is well-protected, even during a disaster.