Ministry of Health

A calibration engineer works through the validation process for one of nine ultra-low temperature freezers which will be used to store Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine vials.

The first doses of the only Covid-19 vaccine so far approved for use in New Zealand are due to arrive, earlier than expected, next week.

But officials still have plenty of work to do to organise the roll-out.

The Ministry of Health said the inoculation campaign was a “massive logistical exercise”, and it was continuing to work through specific details.

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Drive-through vaccinations A wide range of vaccination location possibilities were being looked at, including GPs, pop-up centres, large stadiums and drive-through events.

Mobile services would be provided to rural communities.

District health boards were assessing their capacity to vaccinate in their areas. After that, the ministry would work with them to find additional capacity to vaccinate.

Ministry of Health

The ultra-cold freezers for storing the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine can get down to -80 degrees Celsius

Ultra-cold freezers The ministry has imported nine freezers, capable of getting down to -80 degrees Celsius, to meet the requirements of the Pfizer vaccines.

The Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept at temperatures of between -80C and -60C until it is ready for use, then it can be kept at a warmer temperature of 2-8C for up to five days.

Seven of the freezers were in Auckland and final checks on those were due to be finished on Friday. The remaining two freezers were in Christchurch and would be ready in two weeks following thorough testing, MOH said.

Special containers had been bought to transport the vaccines around New Zealand at ultra-low or cold chain temperatures.


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says border workers will begin receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine from February 20. (Video first published February 12, 2021)

Border workers first, the rest of us will wait The plan is to start vaccinating border workers with the first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab on Saturday, February 20, beginning what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern calls “New Zealand’s largest ever vaccination campaign”.

Ardern said the vaccination of 12,000 border workers was expected to take two-three weeks. That would be followed by those workers’ household contacts.

Then in the second quarter healthcare and essential workers and those most at risk – such as the elderly and people with medical conditions that made them vulnerable to the virus – would be vaccinated, Ardern said.

New Zealand is getting 1.5 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Two doses are needed for a course, so that’s enough for 750,000 people.

At the Friday briefing Covid-19 Response Minister David Hipkins said the number of courses expected in the first shipment was in the low tens of thousands.

Deliveries were expected nearly every week after that, with 226,000 courses expected by the end of March. The rest of the Pfizer courses were expected in the second and third quarters.

Ministry of Health

Some of the ultra-low temperature freezers that will be used to store the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vccine vials.

Vaccination of the general population was expected in the second half of 2021.

Hipkins said that once the first doses arrived, it would take a couple of days to do the checks needed to ensure they had been kept at the right temperature during the journey.

As the vaccines had to be used within five days of being taken out of an ultra-cold freezer, the aim was to have a tight distribution timetable to minimise wastage.

The roll-out to border workers would be reasonably controlled with dedicated teams delivering vaccines at workplaces, Hipkins said. When vaccination was opened up to families of border workers, those people would be asked to go to a particular location.

Training extra staff MOH has said it is looking for an extra 2000 to 3000 fulltime, or equivalent, vaccinators to be trained to deliver Covid-19 vaccines in the second half of the year.

That workforce will come from non-practicing nurses, doctors or pharmacists, final year medical, nursing and pharmacy students, and other health professionals who have vaccinations within their scope of practice.

Health providers and district health boards would be the employers of the vaccinator workforce, MOH said.

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said the Pfizer vaccines came in vials containing up to six doses. A separate diluent had to be added to the vial, mixed and then the dose had to be drawn out very carefully.

“This is different from all our other existing vaccines, so all our vaccinators – even though they’re trained – need to do a specific training module for this vaccine, which is actually a two-hour online training module,” Bloomfield said.

The first 100 of the vaccinators were doing that training now.

Ministry of Health

Another view of some of the nine ultra-cold freezers

What about the travel bubble? Asked about the implications of the start of the vaccination campaign for international travel at a briefing on Friday, Ardern said it would not necessarily make a difference, at this stage.

That was because there was not enough data yet to know whether the vaccine prevented people transmitting the virus, Ardern said.

Bloomfield said none of the trials for the vaccine had included pregnant women, although safety data didn’t suggest there would be a risk for pregnant women.

“So with good information some women may choose to be vaccinated, others may choose not to be.”

The Government’s Unite Against Covid-19 website says women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should discuss the risks and benefits of getting vaccinated with their GPs.