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A man receives a dose of an experimental coronavirus vaccine as part of a clinical trial for a vaccine candidate developed by BioNTech, which is based in Germany, and Pfizer. (Provided by BioNTech)

The state Health Department on Friday announced that it has placed its first order with the federal government for coronavirus vaccine — 46,800 doses of Pfizer’s not-yet-approved vaccine.

“The availability of a COVID-19 vaccine is a major turning point in this pandemic, and we will act as swiftly as possible to get it distributed once it is approved,” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Pfizer and another drug company, Moderna, have both asked the federal government to provide emergency authorizations for their vaccines. The approval for Pfizer’s could come as early as next week. In a news release, CDPHE said Pfizer — which will handle the distribution of its vaccine itself — plans to ship orders to states within 24 hours of receiving the federal government’s OK.


The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

  • MAP: Cases and deaths in Colorado.
  • TESTINGHere’s where to find a community testing site. The state is now encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested.
  • VACCINE HOTLINE: Get up-to-date information.


Colorado’s very first doses will be given to health care workers. Both Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines require two doses for maximum effectiveness, meaning 46,800 doses is enough to inoculate 23,400 people. But it is possible the state will use up all of the first shipment immediately — giving a first dose to 46,800 people — with the expectation that more doses will be arriving within a month’s time to provide the second dose.

CDPHE has promised to release a final vaccination plan early next week, but the first several hundred thousand doses of vaccine in Colorado will go to health care workers, first responders and people living in nursing homes.

The federal government is controlling distribution of the vaccines and is allocating them to states based on population size. That means Colorado, with 1.69% of the nation’s population, will get 1.69% of the available supply.

Though first out of the gate, Pfizer’s vaccine is also the most complicated to move around. It requires ultracold storage — below minus-90 degree Fahrenheit, colder than winters in Antarctica.

CDPHE has identified 16 locations across the state with ultracold storage capabilities. Citing security concerns, the agency will not say exactly what those facilities are, but at least some are believed to be hospitals. The agency has also purchased 10 ultracold freezers that it will distribute around the state.

All told, the storage locations will be in Alamosa, Arapahoe, Denver, Eagle, El Paso, Gunnison, Jefferson, La Plata, Lincoln, Logan, Mesa, Pueblo, Otero, Routt and Weld counties.

In emailed answers to The Colorado Sun, CDPHE said it took into consideration, “equitable geographic distribution as well as transportation logistics given expected winter conditions in the coming months.”

As with many packages this time of year, Pfizer will ship vaccine to states using the companies UPS, FedEx and DHL. Vials of vaccine will be packed into a “thermal shipper” — a medium-sized box filled with 50 pounds of dry ice and equipped with a temperature sensor. CDPHE said the box has to be returned to Pfizer after the delivery is received so the company can reuse it.

State officials have said they expect to receive a regular allocation of vaccine from the federal government every week. The state is also working to get a contract with a local dry ice supplier, in case the shipping boxes need to be “recharged” while moving around to vaccine providers.

The distribution challenges streamline considerably once more vaccines receive federal approval. Moderna’s vaccine and others in the pipeline don’t require such extreme storage temperatures and will be distributed by the health care company McKesson, which has a massive warehouse in Aurora.

There are roughly 330,000 people eligible for vaccination in the state’s planned first phase of distribution. More than 3 million people are eligible in the state’s second phase, though the plan may be revised. It could be months — possibly late spring or early summer — before members of the general public who are not part of a priority group can get vaccinated.

John Ingold is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a reporter currently specializing in health care coverage. Born and raised in Colorado Springs, John spent 18 years working at The Denver Post. Prior to that, he held internships at...