(Reuters) – Workers at a Pfizer Inc factory in Michigan dispatched the first shipments of its COVID-19 vaccine shortly after 6:30 a.m. today – launching the largest and most complex vaccine distribution project ever in the United States.
A network television video feed from the facility in Kalamazoo showed masked workers removing pizza-boxed sized cartons containing vaccine vials from a freezer, and placing them in large, blue coolers, before these were boxed and labeled.
Workers clapped and whistled as the first boxes were moved toward waiting trucks. The long-awaited moment comes as infections and deaths from COVID-19 are surging in the United States. It will take months before most U.S. residents can get a COVID-19 vaccine.
The federal government plans to release the nation’s first 2.9 million doses to 64 states, U.S. territories and major cities, as well as five federal agencies. Although the federal government is coordinating distribution efforts, states have the final decision over who gets the first shots. The federal government is sending the first shipments to more than 600 locations.
Companies in a range of industries are lobbying state and federal officials to give priority to their workers in the line of millions waiting for the vaccine and a return to life free from the fear of the deadly illness.
U.S. regulators late on Friday authorized the vaccine from Pfizer and partner BioNTech for use, and U.S. marshals will accompany the tightly secured shipments from factory to final destination.
“We have spent months strategizing with Operation Warp Speed officials and our healthcare customers on efficient vaccine logistics, and the time has arrived to put the plan into action,” Wes Wheeler, president of UPS Healthcare, said on Saturday.
Pfizer’s dry-ice cooled packages can hold as many as 4,875 doses, and the first leg of their journey will be from Kalamazoo to planes positioned nearby. Workers will load the vaccine – which must be kept at sub-Arctic temperatures – onto the aircraft that will shuttle them to United Parcel Service or FedEx air cargo hubs in Louisville, Kentucky, and Memphis, Tennessee, respectively.
From there, they will be trucked or flown to facilities close to the 145 U.S. sites earmarked to receive the first doses.
DELIVERY FIRMS GIVE VACCINE TOP PRIORITY
Familiar UPS and FedEx package delivery drivers, who may also be carrying holiday gifts and other parcels, will deliver many of the “suitcases” into the hands of healthcare providers on Monday. The shipments are the first of three expected this week.
Healthcare workers and elderly residents of long-term care homes are first in line to receive the inoculations.
Pfizer’s inoculations have the most restrictive requirements for shipping and storage temperature, minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94°F).
UPS and FedEx are giving the vaccine top priority, reserving space on planes and trucks at a time when pandemic- and holiday- related e-commerce are creating more demand for deliveries than carriers can handle.
Both companies have expertise handling fragile medical products and are leaving little room for error. They are providing temperature and location tracking to backup devices embedded in the Pfizer boxes, and tracking each shipment throughout its journey.