Our People in Profile: Public Health Biological Depot ensures Nova Scotians get publicly funded vaccines safely and in a timely manner

 Pictured is a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine vial, left, and a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine vial.
Pictured is a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine vial, left, and a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine vial.

As the leaves change colours and the air gets cooler, thousands of influenza (flu) vaccines will arrive in Nova Scotia to help stop and limit the spread of the flu this year.

The Public Health Biological Depot (bio depot) in Dartmouth is responsible for receiving and distributing all publicly funded vaccines across the province in a safe and timely manner, including the flu vaccine. Examples of other publicly funded vaccines include the vaccines for measles, polio and hepatitis B.

One of the major ways in which the bio depot ensures the safety of vaccines is through maintaining what is known as the cold chain.

From the moment a vaccine is manufactured, to the moment it reaches an arm, the cold chain must be preserved and monitored to prevent a vaccine from getting exposed to low or high temperatures along its journey. The cold chain reflects the optimal temperature that a vaccine must be kept at when handled, stored or transported. This is because vaccines are delicate and can lose their vaccine efficacy with changes in temperature. For publicly funded vaccines, the optimal refrigerated temperature is between +2°C and +8°C.

“When vaccines arrive at the bio depot from the manufacturer, we deliver them to the various public health offices across the province using data loggers to ensure the cold chain is maintained throughout transport,” said Stacey Dunphy, acting health protection manager and immunization coordinator, who oversees the publicly funded vaccine program for Nova Scotia. “Public health offices would then have their providers either pick up the vaccines or have the vaccine delivered, continuing the cold chain.”

Vaccines stored at the bio depot in fridges and freezers before distribution are monitored twice a day for both the minimum and maximum temperatures to safeguard temperatures and uphold the cold chain.

Many professionals work at the bio depot and support Nova Scotia’s publicly funded vaccine program. Roles include administrative staff, bio clerks, pharmacy practice assistants (PPAs) and charge nurses.

In response to the pandemic, bio depot hubs were set up in Nova Scotia’s Northern, Western, Eastern and Central Zones with the appropriate freezers for the COVID-19 vaccine. With that, three public health charge nurses joined the bio depots – including Nancy Worth for Central Zone, Heather Plumridge for Northern and Eastern Zone and Susan Lamb for Western Zone. The bio depot also added additional administrative professionals and PPAs.

“Our role as charge nurses is to help streamline processes using best practices,” said Nancy Worth.

When the first two COVID-19 vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, became available in Canada, many worried how such a large-scale vaccine rollout with complicated two-dose frozen vaccines would work.

Through determination, hard work and teamwork, our bio depots stepped up to the challenge and succeeded in getting the COVID-19 vaccines safely to Nova Scotians.

“When the COVID-19 vaccines arrive at the bio depot, they are put in an ultra-low temperature freezer and documented, with the freezer temperatures also being documented,” said Susan Lamb. Unlike other publicly funded vaccines, the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines arrive in a frozen state. “The vaccine is allocated to various programs such as long-term care, community clinics and Indigenous communities for distribution,” said Lamb.

Once programming allocation is completed, PPAs repackage the vaccines to be distributed. For example, the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine comes in boxes with 1,170 doses. Therefore, PPAs have five minutes to safely and quickly put the vaccines into smaller allotments for distribution, while ensuring the vaccines remain in their frozen state.

After becoming thawed from their frozen state, the vaccines have 30 days to be used until expiration.

“We had COVID-19 vaccines moving all over the province,” said Heather Plumridge. “There was not any one time when a COVID-19 vaccine was sitting anywhere – it was always going somewhere.”

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout along with other publicly funded vaccines is made possible thanks to the work of the bio depot. Thank you to all the professionals at the bio depots who help keep Nova Scotians safe and healthy through immunization.