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With the U.S. death toll at about 300,000, the first doses of the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine are officially en route to distribution centers across the country.
Federal officials authorized emergency use of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine on Friday night, setting in motion the logistically challenging process of getting the first doses to states safely and quickly.
On Saturday, Army Gen. Gustave Perna, chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed, said shipping containers were being packed at a Pfizer facility. From there, he said, the vaccines would be sent to UPS and FedEx hubs, and then to 636 predetermined sites, with 145 sites expected to receive their shipments on Monday.
The first shipment of vaccines left Pfizer’s facility in Kalamazoo, Mich., on Sunday morning.
They will arrive at all locations by 10:30 a.m. Monday, according to UPS Healthcare President Wes Wheeler. UPS and FedEx are working together to ship the vaccines around the country.
Wheeler told NPR’s All Things Considered on Sunday that his team, which has long worked closely with Operation Warp Speed, is singularly focused on the historic task.
“We’re ready, we’re very confident,” Wheeler said. “We’re very, very pleased and proud to be part of this, all the UPS-ers here, working very hard to make this work.”
Workers packed out the trailers overnight Saturday and into Sunday morning, Wheeler said. Two trailers left the Pfizer facility for a nearby airport around 9 a.m., and reached the UPS Worldport in Louisville, Ky. just after noon.
From there, he said shipments are being shipped on UPS aircraft to its gateway and hub facilities, where UPS drivers will receive them.
“Our job starts at Pfizer and ends when we have an approved person with a government ID showing us their ID at the end point,” Wheeler said. “Between that point of time we have total control of the network.”
Earlier this year, he said, the company developed a technology to have a small label containing a Bluetooth device and three radios attached to each package. That means UPS can see exactly where packages are, Wheeler said.
“In terms of security we have eyes on these packages the whole way through,” he added. “We can see them anytime, anywhere within 10 feet.”
Another logistical challenge involves storing the vaccine at the extreme temperature of -94 degrees Fahrenheit, which Wheeler said can only be done using dry ice.
A specially designed package holds 50 lbs of dry ice above and below the trays of vaccine vials, and a GPS tracking device and temperature probe on top of the box allow UPS to see the temperature and location of every vaccine box.
According to Perna, the government expects to be able to ship the Pfizer vaccine to all state-designated distribution centers in as soon as three weeks. By the end of the year, he said, he expects there will be enough shipments to give 20 million people two doses of the vaccine.
In a nod to the daunting and historic task at hand, Wheeler quoted Army Maj. Gen. Christopher Sharpsten of Operation Warp Speed as saying that “sleep is now not an option.”
“I think we’re so caught up with doing this work right now, and so excited about it and so anxious about it and making it work for this country, and the world, that we haven’t even thought about the impact yet to ourselves personally,” Wheeler said.