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UCM Provides Ultra-Cold Storage for Vaccine to Slow Spread of COVID-19

By Jeff Murphy, December 18, 2020

Vaccine SyringePhoto courtesy of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)


WARRENSBURG, MO – In a season of giving, the University of Central Missouri and its faculty members in the College of Health Science and Technology are paying it forward to serve Johnson County residents by making ultra-cold storage available to house COVID-19 vaccines.


The storage unit, capable of maintaining temperatures as low as -80 degrees Celcius, was delivered to Western Missouri Medical Center (WMMC) on Sunday, Dec. 13, where it will store COVID-19 vaccines made possible through Johnson County Community Health Services (JCCHS). The high-tech freezer is one of three such units utilized for research by faculty members and students, mostly in the UCM School of Natural Sciences, and will be available to the county for an indefinite period while the fight against the pandemic continues. The equipment loan from the university is consistent with the cooperative relationship that exists between UCM, the medical center and JCCHS to help slow the spread of the virus.


“We anticipate the freezer being utilized for vaccine storage at least through the spring 2021 semester, and possibly longer,” said Alice Greife, dean of the College of Health, Science and Technology. “While this will limit our capacity for super cold storage, it was never a question by our faculty as to whether or not we should do this. The first thing they wanted to know was how can we get it done as quickly as possible to help the community?”

Scott Lankford, chair of the School of Natural Sciences, was contacted by Dean Greife Friday afternoon, Dec. 11, about the need for cold storage at WMMC capable of housing the vaccine. Understanding the urgency of this need, Lankford and his faculty put safeguarding the health of county residents ahead of what the temporary reduction in freezer space could mean for faculty members and their graduate and undergraduate research activities.


“These types of freezers are the hubs of any molecular research program because they are required to store many of the research reagents and samples that drive the research programs of several faculty here at UCM,” Lankford said. “While the decision to loan this critical piece of equipment out for an undetermined period of time leaves us in a very vulnerable situation, every faculty member impacted by this quick decision offered only support for the equipment loan. It will be pretty cool to share the role that freezer played in our region’s fight against the pandemic with future research students in the biology program.”


Bill Hawley, UCM vice president for finance and administration, said the Missouri Department of Higher Education had inquired earlier this fall about ultra-cold storage capacity on campus. This made UCM aware that there may be an opportunity for colleges and universities to assist communities, if needed.


“We received a call Friday (Dec. 11) afternoon from Western Missouri Medical Center and that’s when the wheels were put in motion,” Hawley said.

Dr. David Glover, a longtime Warrensburg physician who currently serves as medical director at the university, said there has been frequent dialogue between UCM and WMMC about “how to optimize our combined efforts to provide our community with the best possible response to the devastating pandemic.” He noted that UCM’s willingness to provide an ultra-cold storage unit to house the new Pfizer vaccine to be used for early vaccination of local healthcare workers and ultimately others is a major step forward in addressing the pandemic.


“It is amazing what can be done when everyone supports one another for the good of the community,” Glover said.


He outlined a number of other examples of how collaboration between the university and county healthcare agencies/providers is helping in the fight against COVID-19.


“As early as March, WMMC started a testing site for COVID including all university students, faculty and staff in the persons who were eligible to be tested. At that time, government reimbursement was not secured and the hospital acted on behalf of our county and community to provide testing anyway,” Glover said. He and his son, Dr. Drew Glover, also collaborated with the staff at the University Health Center (UHC) to ensure that they were part of the COVID response.


“The university was hard at work looking at all of the implications of a possible pandemic on how the university functioned and how to proceed in the best interest of all,” he said. “The ability of the UHC to evaluate and test students helped reduce the workload on Urgent Care and ER at WMMC.”


As prevalence of COVID increased locally, the UHC voluntarily assisted JCCHS in contact tracing and contacting positive cases residing in the county that were identified by testing at WMMC or elsewhere.


“That training and experience would prove vital as UHC assumed the role of diagnosing, managing and contact tracing all UCM students from August on,” Glover said. “This unloaded the understaffed JCCHS considerably.” When there was a surge in cases at UCM in early September, Athletic Trainers and team physicians in Intercollegiate Athletics also helped with case management and tracing for athletes. This greatly aided the UHC and allowed evaluation of all positive cases which prompt contact tracing to help prevent further spread, according to Glover.


Other examples of collaboration between UCM, WMMC and JCCHS for pandemic response include:

  • JCCHS provided training to UHC staff on how to do case management and contact tracing.
  • UHC provided 252 hours of nursing support to JCCHS between April 1 and June 30 to support county COVID efforts.
  • WMMC was proactive in setting up a COVID-19 testing tent early in the epidemic that UHC was able to utilize in testing UCM students.
  • In March when the University transitioned to remote learning, the health center started doing telehealth visits with students and sending anybody with upper respiratory symptoms to WMMC tent for testing.
  • WMMC worked closely with UHC to set up protocols for communicating test orders and results.
  • After UCM began testing students, when the campus was closed for breaks, WMMC provided testing.
  • WWMC had access to the first rapid tests in Warrensburg. When it came time to test athletes on a regular basis to meet criteria for play, the medical center donated a Sofia machine for use by athletic trainers and sold their supply of Sofia rapid tests to UCM for athletic use.
  • As COVID-19 began to spread into Missouri, WMMC, JCCHS, along with the Johnson County Emergency Medical Services, and the county emergency response team that included UCM worked quickly to set up a county Emergency Operations Center to address this important health issue.

As a key partner with Johnson County and the Warrensburg community, UCM is continuing to monitor the pandemic’s impact on campus while also exploring additional ways it can support community and county efforts to maintain a safe and healthy environment for all.


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