Cold snap nearly cost $30K in vaccines

LISBON – The Columbiana County Health Department weathered a perfect storm of events last week, which could have meant the loss of $30,000 in vaccines.

When temperatures dropped on Tuesday morning, the health department lost power at about 7:45 a.m.

Health Commissioner Wes Vins said he waited for the generator to kick on, which usually happens within 30 seconds, but nothing happened.

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 it was unable to start up. Fighting a frozen lock on a shed, they were able to get out another backup generator, this time a portable one, but it did not have enough kick to operate the vaccine refrigerator. They then went to a third generator, which worked.

Vins said a local mechanic, Chris Shivers, plus an employee from Ray Lewis and Co. had come out to help get things back up and running.

The temperature in the vaccine refrigerator did rise, county nurse Barb Knee said, but temperatures quickly began to drop again past the acceptable level.

Ironically, a household freezer used for other items stayed very cold during the outage. The vaccine refrigerator, which cost thousands of dollars, has a glass front and that may have played a role in the temperature starting to rise.

After the power came back on permanently at 1:30 p.m., Knee said she and the remaining nursing staff spent the next day going through the vaccine inventory and talking to the manufacturers about what could and could not still be used.

They also called the Ohio Department of Health, which responded by quarantining everything in the refrigerator until all the manufacturing information was forwarded to them for review.

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.

The health department lost just six doses of polio vaccine, which belonged to the state and were forgiven, and nine doses of Tubersol, which is used to test for tuberculosis.

Vins said since then he has already began updating the emergency plan for a power outage situation at the health department, including placing the generator battery on a three-year replacement cycle whether it tests in need of replacement or not. There are now also additional backup locations to put the vaccines in case of emergency storage.

Knee thanked everyone on the board and the staff who came out to help, working in the cold trying to get things up and running again.

“No one said no,” Vins said of the response of need by the health department. “The fact that we only lost a handful of vaccines is real fortunate.”

Knee also pointed out there are still flu vaccines available at the health department for both adults and children. The vaccines are available from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Fridays. The Health Department will be closed Monday in observance of Martin Luther King Day.

There have reportedly been 301 influenza cases – in which a person is hospitalized – in the state since Jan. 1 and four locally, including three within the past 24 hours of the meeting.