At pharmacies around the Sanford Healthcare system, there are locked rooms, covered by video cameras and equipped with bulletproof glass. Inside those rooms are padlocked freezers, an extra level of security for the contents inside: Covid-19 vaccines.
As vaccines from Pfizer and BioNTech, and now Moderna, are shipped across the country, hospital administrators, pharmacists and security experts are tasked with figuring out how to keep the limited number of vaccines safe. Luckily, most hospitals and pharmacies already have systems in place to secure highly sought after drugs, protocols that have been honed during the opioid epidemic.
“Hospital pharmacies have generally had security concerns for years,” says Jesse Breidenbach, the senior executive director of pharmacy at Sanford. He says that pharmacies that are known for stocking narcotics have been robbed at gunpoint. To prevent such thefts, the Sanford network has developed multiple security protocols, many of which are now being used to safeguard Covid-19 vaccines. For example, opioid supplies have their every movement—from shipment to pharmacy—logged and documented. Similarly, the Covid-19 vaccines at Sanford are logged into and out of a tracking system any time the vaccines leave the ultra-cold freezer where they are stored.
There’s reason for the concern. More than 300,000 Americans have now died from Covid-19, and while the recent Emergency Use Authorizations of two vaccines have become a light at the end of the tunnel, it will be months before there are enough doses of the vaccine for everyone who wants one. Most states are initially distributing vaccines in accordance with CDC recommendations that prioritize frontline healthcare workers, as well as elderly residents of long-term care facilities. But there are already rumors of people who want to cut the line, from politicians to the ultra-rich. Luckily, hospitals, clinics and pharmacies are prepared.
Multiple healthcare systems told Forbes that they are keeping their supply of Covid-19 vaccines in locked rooms, with limited access.
Here again, healthcare systems have learned from the opioid epidemic, where threats of theft can come from both outside the hospital – and from the people working there. For example, there are many documented cases of healthcare workers diverting opioid medication intended for patients into their own pockets. But strangers have also tried to get their hands on opioid medications through pharmacies — either by subtle mechanisms or by force. Earlier this year, two men attempted to rob a Rite Care Pharmacy in Austin, TX at gunpoint to get access to opioids. The robberies have been frequent enough to prompt some pharmacy chains, such as CVS, to install time-delay safes in pharmacies.
Multiple healthcare systems told Forbes that they are keeping their supply of Covid-19 vaccines in locked rooms, with limited access. A spokesperson from UT Southwestern Medical Center said that “access to the vaccine is restricted.” In addition, the vaccine is kept “under multiple levels of security protocols.” The spokesperson would not elaborate on what these protocols were, citing security concerns. A spokesperson from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center similarly said that Covid-19 vaccines are being stored in pharmacies with secured access.
And it’s not just the hospitals that are thinking about security. The vaccine companies themselves are also taking steps to ensure that vaccines are staying safe in transit. Pfizer, which is shipping its vaccines in ultra-cold thermal shippers, has equipped each shipper with a GPS device that tracks both the temperature of the vaccines as well as the location of the shipper. These tracking devices will be on 24/7, the company says, and “will allow Pfizer to proactively prevent unwanted deviations” to the shipment routes.
Thankfully, Breidenbach says, there haven’t been any security concerns yet in regards to the Covid-19 vaccines. But, he says, “hospital pharmacies are always on alert.”