How S.F. rescued 1,000 thawed vaccine doses from 300 miles away

Dr. Mary Mercer was just coming off her emergency room shift at San Francisco General Hospital on Thursday night when the call came in: Humboldt County had a “pizza box” of Pfizer vaccine that it couldn’t use. Did San Francisco want it?

A pizza box is public health slang for a flat of Pfizer vials — which is about the size of a pizza box, and contains more than a thousand doses.

Mercer, who is the city’s vaccine coordinator on top of being an ER physician, said she didn’t hesitate. “Yes, we definitely want that,” Mercer said she told the caller. “Any drop we can get, we want.”

But Pfizer is a sensitive vaccine with particular storage needs, and this box had already been moved from cold storage to a refrigerator. The clock had started: The doses would be unsafe to use after five days, and they needed to go into arms by Sunday.

That meant transporting 1,002 doses, stored in 167 thimble-size glass vials, 300 miles from Eureka to San Francisco, ideally in less than a day, keeping them safe and cool along the way.

The trip would ultimately involve a generous San Francisco International Airport employee and private pilot, two Muni operators turned vaccine couriers, and a team of nurses and doctors ready to inject arms at a San Francisco General clinic first thing Saturday morning.

“The effort was really energizing,” Mercer said late Friday, after the vials were nestled in their new refrigerated home at San Francisco General and had been checked by a pharmacist to ensure they were safe to use. “We were cheering the vaccine the whole