Unity College employees load a freezer bound for a Maine CDC installation that can keep its contents as cold as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit for storage of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Photo courtesy of Unity College

Colby and Unity are among several Maine colleges that have reached out to assist with the ultra-cold storage required to house vials of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine being distributed around the state to health care workers.

Faculty members at both institutions were looking to help after seeing that states around the country were struggling to find ultra-cold storage for the vaccine, which must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, or minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We can read the news and see that these ultra-low temp freezers were needed for this vaccine, and some places around the country didn’t have it,” said Douglas Terp, vice president for administration and chief financial officer of Colby College.

From there, Terp reached out to Russell Johnson, professor of biology at Colby, to see if the department had the capacity to lend an appliance. Within minutes, the department said they did and Terp was in contact with Maine CDC.

“We try to work cooperatively with (Maine CDC), and this was just an extension of that partnership,” Terp said.

Unity President Melik Khoury and Chief Sustainability Officer Jenny deHart said a faculty member approached them about the possibility of lending a freezer. A short time later, faculty members agreed to free up the appliance and officials reached out to Maine CDC.


“The (freezers) are not very common at institutions,” deHart said. “They’re a rare lend because they’re used for long-term storage and storage for samples, typically biological, involving student and faculty research.”

Unity College, which is known for having an environmental sciences-based curriculum, has a few freezers at the campus.

“We are proud of the fact that based on the equipment that we have we were able to, in some small way, fast track the availability of a vaccine in partnership with Maine CDC,” Khoury said.

Three Colby College freezers capable of keeping their contents at minus 70 degrees Celsius or minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature necessary to keep stored Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines stable. The freezers the college lent to the Maine CDC each provide storage for 10,000 doses. Photo courtesy of Colby College

Maine CDC spokesperson Robert Long said in an email Friday that Unity and Colby College were among several colleges around the state that loaned ultra-cold freezers to store Pfizer vaccines at a secure Maine CDC site. The University of New England, the University of Maine System, Southern Maine Community College and Bates College are among the colleges that offered ultra-cold storage capacity.

Each of the freezers that have been lent to Maine CDC can store 10,000 or more doses and another freezer is on order, Long said.

As of Friday morning, 2,264 health care workers in Maine had received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine with hundreds more expected to be vaccinated throughout the day. The Pfizer vaccine requires two doses. The first doses were administered Tuesday at Maine Medical Center in Portland.


“The state’s vaccination plan calls for these doses to be administered soon after arrival in Maine, so storage is secondary to vaccine distribution at this time,” Long said. “We have capacity to store Pfizer vaccine sent to Maine, but the priority is getting it into the arms of essential workers and the vulnerable people for whom they care.”

The Colby College freezers are used by the biology and chemistry departments to store a number of faculty and student samples used for teaching and research. Often, Johnson said, RNA or samples from which RNA will be isolated are stored in the freezers.

“This is the molecule that provides information for building proteins,” Johnson said. “RNA molecules are unstable and need to be stored at these very low temperatures so they won’t degrade while you’re waiting to study them. That’s the same reason that this RNA-based COVID vaccine is to be stored at these very low temperatures, because it’s made out of this RNA molecule.”

The low temperatures keep the molecules stable, keeping them from breaking down.

“Really, the reason that we have those freezers is for the same reason that it is needed for the vaccine,” Johnson said.

Khoury hopes that Unity’s contribution helps to make a difference as more vaccines become available in the coming months.

“The fact that we were in a position to do that in some small way, there’s a lot of pride,” Khoury said. “It’s our civic duty, supporting Maine CDC. We feel that we may be in a small way jumpstarting the Maine economy as we get back to a post-COVID world.”

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