Ketchikan’s first COVID-19 vaccine shipment was too warm and had spoiled, officials say

Person holding white cardboard box
The Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 doses contained in this box were too warm when they arrived in Ketchikan on Wednesday, officials say. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

Ketchikan’s first batch of the COVID-19 vaccine was spoiled and couldn’t be used. But replacements have already arrived.

Pandemic response officials said Friday that the 20 doses that arrived at Ketchikan’s airport on Wednesday were too warm and had to be discarded. The batch was intended for public health staff and EMS personnel. But officials say nobody received an injection. A fresh batch arrived Friday.

Spokesperson Kacie Paxton wrote in a statement that larger communities like Juneau and Anchorage received a container directly from drugmaker Pfizer. Ketchikan’s doses were transferred into a smaller package and sent by air freight to the community.

“The details of the shipment and process have been documented, and improvements are being applied to the next shipment,” Paxton said in an email to reporters.

Meanwhile, some nursing home residents began receiving doses of the vaccine. Paxton says Ketchikan’s Island Pharmacy received a shipment containing doses for the state-run Pioneer Home and other local assisted living facilities. The shipment also contained a replacement for the spoiled doses meant for EMS and public health workers, Paxton said.

Paxton says the pharmacists were the first people in Ketchikan to be vaccinated. They then gave the lifesaving immunization to residents of some elder care facilities. It’s not clear which ones. Island Pharmacy declined to immediately respond to questions Friday afternoon.

PeaceHealth, the nonprofit that runs Ketchikan’s city-owned hospital, plans to receive its own 100-dose shipment of COVID-19 vaccine on Monday. A spokesperson for the Washington state-based health care provider says they’ll start vaccinating front-line medical workers on Tuesday.

The COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech has to be kept at extremely cold temperatures for long-term storage. The manufacturer says it only lasts for up to five days at refrigerator temperatures. That creates logistical challenges to distributing the vaccine outside of major metropolitan areas.

The state health department did not immediately respond to questions about what happened that allowed the vaccines to spoil, or would be done to prevent it in the future.