By Charles Pedersen
Since the first COVID-19 vaccines were announced in 2020, their unique temperature requirements and their complex logistics related to shipping and storage have gained global attention. In the U.S., the CDC has issued handling instructions with additional requirements for efficiently storing each type of vaccine. And while the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine’s ultralow temperature requirements have been relaxed and the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine only requires refrigeration, ensuring that vaccines remain within their specified temperature parameters continues to be of vital importance.
In the months since the vaccine rollout began, there have been dozens of reports about vaccines being jeopardized for a variety of reasons, including issues relating to storage and temperature. In some cases, healthcare workers identified the issue early enough to safely administer the affected doses before they became compromised or placed them under quarantine until a state regulatory agency could confirm their efficacy. In others, a significant number of vials had to be discarded or previous recipients were told they needed to be revaccinated.
These stories underscore the importance of automated temperature monitoring to avoid unnecessary loss and ensure vaccines are effective upon administration. Experts have pointed to the importance of accurate and frequent temperature data collection as an essential factor in the success of the vaccination effort.
With the death toll from COVID-19 reaching staggering numbers, vaccines still in limited supply, and a focus on vaccine distribution across the globe, healthcare systems and others involved in administering vaccines are doing everything they can to protect their quotas, both to support the health of their communities and to avoid the negative publicity of an unnecessary loss.
All of these factors point to the importance of effective, efficient temperature monitoring—so it is no wonder the CDC requires every vaccine storage unit to be equipped with a temperature monitoring device (TMD). The CDC also recommends (but does not require) the use of automated monitoring solutions, which provide a high level of accuracy for healthcare environments.
Benefits of automation
Automated temperature monitoring solutions rely on sensors that are easily attached to a refrigerator, freezer, or other contained environment to collect temperature data and wirelessly transmit it to a centralized system. The data is then streamed to a user-friendly software application that maintains detailed records of temperature history and can perform automated reporting to meet regulatory compliance needs. When conditions fall outside of the preestablished parameters for each unit, a real-time alert is triggered to prompt staff to take action before the safety and efficacy of the vaccines are compromised.
The pandemic has led to widespread staff shortages and decreased revenues for healthcare systems, underscoring the important role that these automated solutions can play in temperature monitoring. Automated monitoring provides detailed reporting that can reduce the cost and labor associated with manual monitoring and documentation. These solutions can also allow staff to focus on more complex tasks associated with the vaccine rollout, such as having the correct number of vaccines ready to be administered at a given time.
Perhaps most importantly, automated temperature monitoring solutions significantly reduce human error. While human error is a significant risk across all industries, in healthcare these errors can be harmful or devastating—even errors within the administrative arm of the industry rather than during clinical care. The likelihood of human error is increased by many of the circumstances common during this pandemic, such as reduced staffing, employee fatigue, and high patient volumes. Automation of temperature tracking, alerts, and reporting significantly reduces the potential for mistakes. Many automated monitoring systems can even trigger alerts if a freezer door is left open, an unfortunately common error.
While the CDC requires TMDs for the storage of all vaccines, not all solutions are created equal. As outlined above, automated temperature monitoring solutions provide important features that improve both efficacy and efficiency, but there are many other considerations when selecting a temperature monitoring solution.
Finding the best fit
Every solution must be CDC vaccine compliant and rely on temperature probes certified by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Devices of this nature will provide a temperature history that accurately reflects actual storage temperatures, which is critical for protecting the vaccines. The CDC also recommends the use of automated solutions that provide detailed information on all temperatures recorded at given intervals and on temperature excursions, or times when a unit is operating outside of the preestablished temperature range.
Available solutions offer a variety of options for temperature ranges, and it is important to consider the range of temperatures that may need to be monitored—both now and in the future. Not all sensors on the market are equipped to monitor the wide range of temperatures that vaccines may require, including ultralow temperatures. Although the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine’s storage requirements have been adjusted after finding the vaccine can be kept stable at standard freezer temperatures for up to two weeks, ultralow temperatures are still required for longer-term storage and may be necessary for future vaccines or drug trials.
Another consideration is the option to easily and quickly install the devices. This feature is crucial in the current environment where on-site installations with solution providers can be difficult or restricted due to COVID-19 precautions. A solution provider should offer detailed instructions and testing options to make the self-installation process simple, yet effective.
It is also important to select a temperature monitoring solution that provides both remote alerts that are transmitted to facility management and biomedical teams via email or SMS, and local alerts that create audible tones and visual notifications to alert personnel nearby. In addition, a battery-operated solution helps to ensure data will continue to be collected in the event of a power or network outage and will be transmitted once connectivity is restored.
Monitoring beyond COVID-19
Temperature monitoring in healthcare environments—while timely in the battle against COVID-19—is not a new development. It’s an important application for protecting other vaccines, medicines, blood and lab samples, as well as IT equipment and food services. It also falls under the larger umbrella category of environmental monitoring, which includes air pressure, humidity, and other conditions and is important for sterile processing and in the OR. As a result, the criteria for selecting a solution should include both current monitoring requirements and steps to future-proof the investment.
Finally, while not essential for the current vaccine rollout, the ability to integrate a temperature or environmental monitoring solution into a wider real-time location system (RTLS) platform allows the investment to become part of a long-term technology strategy. Working seamlessly alongside other RTLS applications, such as asset tracking and nurse call automation, administrators and other decision-makers gain a clear picture of facility operations, enabling them to make better decisions that increase efficiency, drive employee satisfaction, and improve patient safety and quality of care.
Charles Pedersen is the product manager of environmental monitoring solutions at CenTrak, the market leader in locating, sensing, and security solutions for the healthcare industry and a visionary in the Gartner Magic Quadrant for indoor location services.