Indian-uity: CTUIR’s Ingenuity with lamprey freezer keeps vaccines at appropriate temperature

By Cary Rosenbaum of the CUJ

MISSION – Collaboration between departments at the CTUIR is not uncommon.

But when a deadly COVID-19 pandemic is involved and a potential solution is a 700-pound lamprey freezer to store lifesaving vaccines, you’ll be hard-pressed to find such a unique situation nationwide. Its -75-degree capabilities make it ideal to hold the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

“You wouldn’t expect to use a freezer for fish to store life saving medicine for our people and our community,” said Department of Natural Resources’ Aaron Jackson, who heads the Tribe’s lamprey project.

DNR lent the freezer to Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center (YHTC) after the idea was presented by Umatilla Hatchery Satellite Facilities’ Chris Dearing, the husband of YTHC Pharmacist Angie Dearing.

“Chris mentioned we had one in the program so he got a hold of me,” Jackson recalled.

Yellowhawk was looking at a potential wait of three months to receive a freezer.

“Angie basically told me what she was up against,” Jackson said. “I explained to her we had one and they wanted to know more information on what temperature the vaccine could be stored at to see if it met the criteria.

“Lo and behold it did.”

Yellowhawk signed a loan agreement with DNR for the use of the freezer, Jackson said.

“Next thing you know staff picked it up and took it over to Yellowhawk,” he said.

The freezer was installed just a few days before the vaccine arrived, Jackson said.

That installation did not come without challenges, according to YTHC Facilities and Risk Management Director Eric Gabriel. Logistically, Yellowhawk had to figure out how to move the freezer and then how to unlock it; they had to rewire the power capabilities of their receiving room; and then learn how to turn it on and set the appropriate temperature.

The transfer was achieved with a forklift. But the lock was too tough to pick.

“It didn’t come with a user’s manual and there’s a locking mechanism,” Gabriel said. “They had lost the keys god knows when. So I contacted the company that made this freezer and talked to the tech department.”

A key replacement could not be found, so a new lock was put in, Gabriel said.

To increase the power output, Yellowhawk hired electricians to resupply the shipping department with the appropriate amount of electrical capacity.

Many Tribal members and employees were involved in the coordination of the freezer.

“It was really good internal coordination within our organization to find out another department had what we needed with the vaccines,” Board of Trustees Chair Kat Brigham said. “So we were able to get the cooler to Yellowhawk so we could be one of the first tribes in the Pacific Northwest to get the vaccines to the tribal community.”