Pharmacist Mike Tiberg, retired, has returned to work to prepare COVID vaccines in Grand Traverse County. Photo courtesy Munson Healthcare
Pharmacist Mike Tiberg, retired, has returned to work to prepare COVID vaccines in Grand Traverse County.

Retired pharmacist Mike Tiberg was ready to come back to work so he could play a part in the largest vaccination campaign in history.

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich.—Mike Tiberg is a retired pharmacist in northern Michigan. When the coronavirus came to Michigan, he felt powerless. 

“My primary specialization while practicing was infectious disease pharmacy,” he told The ‘Gander. “Now that I’m retired, it’s kind of like standing on the sidelines and watching the whole process take place. It was difficult for me to do that.”

When the vaccine rollout began, Tiberg saw a way to help his community through the pandemic. Munson Medical Center in Grand Traverse County asked him to come back in December to help with the mass vaccination campaign. It was a call Tiberg had been waiting for. 

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Over the last month, he has found his role as a pharmacist in the vaccination campaign to be immensely satisfying. “The rewarding part for me is just getting to see the gratitude of individuals who are getting the vaccine,” he explained. “Many times they’re frontline workers who have been exposed or who have even had COVID along the way … and are very willing, able, and wanting the vaccine.”  

Tiberg recently spoke with The ‘Gander about his role in the rollout campaign, and to address concerns those who are vaccine hesitant may have about the process. 

A Pharmacist’s Role in a Mass Vaccination Campaign

Tiberg’s day starts before sunrise, when he must take about a third of the day’s expected doses out of refrigeration, where they had spent the night thawing. The vaccines, in particular Pfizer’s, have to be kept at super-low temperatures, but can be safely stored in refrigeration for several days. Once out of the fridge, the shelf life of the medication drops to just hours. 

He then walks those doses to a prep area near the drive-thru window of his clinic and begins preparing the doses to be administered. That involves diluting concentrated doses of the vaccine into what is needed for patients and drawing those prepared doses into syringes for use. Those doses get labeled and brought out to the people performing the vaccination. 

When he delivers the doses, Tiberg also answers questions from the clinic staff or the public about the vaccine. As a pharmacist serving mostly medical workers so far, Tiberg has answered questions about largely technical issues related to the vaccine like the timing of freezing, thawing, diluting, and drawing up vaccines.

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Toward the end of the day, Tiberg says his clinic is careful not to draw up too many doses of the vaccine, because of the short shelf life once those doses leave refrigeration. Their goal is to be at exactly zero patients and doses at the end of the day. If they have a few extra doses, he explained, they contact people from the list of eligible patients who haven’t gotten their vaccination yet or the spare dose is administered to a member of the medical center staff in accordance with Michigan’s vaccine prioritization guidance. Then, the next day’s doses are moved to thaw in the refrigerator overnight.

“We haven’t wasted any in that process yet, and we’ve given thousands of doses,” he explained. “It’s taken extreme amounts of preparation by hospital staff, and they’ve done a really remarkable job.”

Advice to Michiganders Waiting for Their Turn

As he’s seeing more members of the general public over the age of 65, Tiberg has noticed an eagerness to get the vaccine among Michiganders.

“They’re very high risk, but they’ve been very excited to get it and are very thankful too,” he told The ‘Gander. “I’m giving them something, but at the same time they’re giving me something back in seeing the joy in their faces like that.”

Of course, the vaccination won’t change things overnight. In order to achieve herd immunity, Michigan has to administer about 14 million doses of the vaccine. But the state has yet to reach even 1 million doses administered. In the meantime, masking up and social distancing will continue to be key, particularly with a new, more virulent variant of the coronavirus taking root in Michigan.

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“We know it’s going to be a number of months down the road before we can get to any place that’s normal,” the pharmacist explained, “We’re trying to get out as many doses as we can into people’s arms … It will be coming. Again, it may be a number of months before we get everybody that wants to be vaccinated vaccinated, but we’ll definitely be out there.”

In the meantime, he stresses the importance of patience and following the phases laid out by the state of Michigan for when to get vaccinated and social distancing and masking guidance for slowing the transmission of the disease.

As for those hesitant to be vaccinated, Tiberg acknowledges there are legitimate reasons for that hesitancy. He doesn’t pressure anyone into it, but he tries to give Michiganders the facts about the vaccine and ease concerns over things like the speed with which the vaccine was developed. He seeks to empower them with information and, for example,  explains how the vaccines were developed with the same rigorous medical standards as any other drug—information about which is readily available online.

Importantly, he says that the vaccines will be around when their time arrives.

“The biggest thing is, if you want the vaccine, it will be available,” he said. “It may take a little time … but the clinics that are out there, we’re trying to [inoculate] as many as possible.”