Stakes Are High for Vaccine Rollout but Delivery Giants Say They’re Ready

Wesley Wheeler, president of global healthcare at United Parcel Service, testifies on Thursday, Dec. 10, at a hearing of the Senate on how the company will serve in the national deployment of coronavirus vaccination efforts. (Image via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — States and localities have just $340 million to distribute Covid-19 vaccines, an amount that Pennsylvania’s health secretary told a Senate subcommittee Thursday was “simply insufficient.” 

“If you break it down there are about 330 million people in the United States, so that’s a little over a dollar per person in the United States to mount the immunization enterprise that’s unparalleled in its scale and complication and it is insufficient,” said Rachel Levine, a medical doctor who also leads the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers in addition to the Pennsylvania Health Department.

Levine testified as part of a hybrid in-person and virtual hearing of the Subcommittee on Transportation and Safety due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which claimed more than 3,000 lives in the United States on Wednesday — a new daily record. Alongside Levine, FedEx and United Parcel Service heads testified about how the companies would be supporting vaccine rollout efforts.

Richard Smith, FedEx’s executive vice president, touted the company’s delivery of more than 2 billion surgical masks, as well as its delivery of test kits and Covid-19 samples at 40 community testing sites in 10 states. 

As for monitoring sensitive packages, Nevada Senator Deb Fischer, who chairs the subcommittee, noted that both Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccine candidates need to be stored at below-freezing temperatures. She touted FedEx sensors that transmit a package’s location every 2 seconds, enabling shippers to intervene if vaccines got too hot.

“At present, we have more than 90 temp-control facilities across five continents with plans to open additional facilities in the coming years,” Smith said. “We are also expanding our network of ultra-low temperature freezers at some of our major hubs.” 

Fischer asked how, especially with the holiday season likely intersecting Covid-19 vaccine rollout, could the supply chains ensure a proper capacity for shipping the product across the country.

Wesley Wheeler, president of global health care at United Parcel Service, said his background in engineering helped the company develop a forecasting model for vaccine distribution, which began by trying to predict how many vaccine companies would have their treatments approved. After that, the company focused on the locations of those companies, while beginning to formulate how many doses per-shipment trucks could move.

“We have reserved plenty of capacity in all the lanes, we’re ready now,” Wheeler said. “We have the dry-ice capacity to start with a large number of Pfizer vaccine shipments starting next week, we hope and we’re very much looking forward to that.” 

Senator Amy Klobuchar focused on the importance of additional federal funding to states and localities, allowing Levine to expand on her remarks when the hearing began. The secretary called communication — and chiefly, educational messaging from Centers of Disease Control along with states and localities — essential to dispelling vaccine myths and spreading awareness about efficacy.

“We currently have no funding to accomplish that part of our mission,” Levine said.

Pennsylvania’s mobile care units — automobiles stocked with medical supplies and eventually Covid-19 vaccine — will be a utilized more in later stages of vaccine rollout, Levine added. She said the second and third phases of the state’s vaccination plan will see much more mobile involvement, as it will involve the state’s department of health to coordinate vaccination through various methods.

“For phase one, it really is going to be the hospitals that will be immunizing most of the health care workers and again, CVS and Walgreens, our pharmacy partners, going directly to long-term care centers to accomplish those immunizations,” Levine said. 

Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, noted that the aviation sector will likely see overlap in production and distribution — a potential concern given the industry’s layoffs and a lack of equipment maintenance due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But Smith said passenger airliners in the United States wouldn’t need to be relied upon in order to deliver Covid-19 vaccine.

As for equitable distribution, the supply chains were simply the transportation arm.

“That’s just not a decision that we make. We’re told where to take the vaccines on a daily basis and that’s what we do,” Smith said.

Even as senators listened to plans to roll out the coronavirus vaccine nationwide, officials in Los Angeles County laid out how they intend to distribute the roughly 83,000 Pfizer vaccines expected to arrive at area hospitals by next week.

Health care workers in hospitals, residents and staff at nursing homes and other frontline workers will receive the vaccine in the first phase. Workers in clinics and other medical settings will be next in line for the injections.

The logistics will be a massive partnership between the public and private sector. Pfizer will send the vaccine to nine locations across the county to be distributed to 83 acute-care hospitals in ultra-cold freezers.

And it can’t happen soon enough. On Thursday, LA County reported 12,819 new positive cases, 74 new deaths and over 3,400 people hospitalized.

LA County chief science officer Dr. Paul Simon said the uptick in hospitalizations over the last few days is alarming and like a “speeding car approaching a cliff.”

“I am very concerned. I’ve worked in public health for 30 plus years. I’ve never been more concerned than I am right now,” said Simon.

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