| Memphis Commercial Appeal
FedEx makes its first COVID-19 vaccine delivery
FedEx completed its first delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech. Footage shows shipments being transported in Memphis.
Memphis Commercial Appeal
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – After months of preparation and scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers, FedEx and UPS’ COVID-19 vaccine distribution mission appears to be going as smoothly as the delivery giants assured it would.
“Simply put, a global health crisis of this scale requires a network of our scale to address,” COO Raj Subramaniam said days after the company made its first delivery of Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine. “This is who we are and what we do.”
The effort to vaccinate America has encountered slowdowns, however, after FedEx and UPS deliver the shipments to administration sites.
Leaders of the federal initiative Operation Warp Speed said last month they were close to reaching their delivery goals, but states were taking longer than expected to administer vaccines, USA TODAY reported.
About 29.4 million doses have been distributed in the U.S. and nearly 10.3 million people have received a dose of the vaccine as of Wednesday morning, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
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Julie Swann, department head of North Carolina State University’s Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, said a gap between distribution and administration will naturally occur because of the time it takes to deliver and then administer doses, but “it is true the rollout has been slower than we want.” She isn’t aware of any transit issues from FedEx and UPS’ end.
“FedEx is working closely with our healthcare customers and federal, state and local officials to transport the vaccines as directed by their allocation and distribution plans,” the company said in a statement. “It isn’t up to us to decide who gets the vaccines. Our job is to get them to the right place safely and reliably.”
FedEx Express executive Richard Smith, who is leading the company’s vaccine distribution effort, said in a video message at CES 2021 Tuesday that the company is currently “shipping hundreds of thousands of doses, and soon to be millions,” of the vaccine through its network.
FedEx made the first U.S. COVID-19 vaccine delivery on the morning of Dec. 14 to Boston Medical Center, as the peak holiday shipping season was underway. Despite the added challenge of moving vaccines, both FedEx and UPS’ on-time delivery rates during peak didn’t falter from the year before, according to ShipMatrix data.
UPS said in a statement it “is successfully delivering the vaccines as has been requested.”
Vaccine plans causing ‘a lot of confusion’
The delivery giants, along with pharmaceutical companies and drug distributor McKesson have been effective during the distribution process, said Tom Goldsby, Haslam Chair of Logistics at the University of Tennessee’s Department of Supply Chain Management. But the phased approach to who gets vaccinated first has led to communication troubles, he added.
“At some point, you have to tell people whether they’re on the list or not on the list and where they are on the list (to get vaccinated),” he said. “That seems to be where there’s a lot of confusion right now.”
The U.S. government recently changed its approach to vaccine eligibility, with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar asking states to expand vaccinations to people 65 and older along with those with comorbidities. He said restrictions by states on who is eligible to get the vaccine “have obstructed speed and accessibility of administration.”
“There was never a reason that states needed to complete vaccinating all health care providers before opening vaccinations to older Americans and other vulnerable populations,” Azar said. “States should not be waiting to complete 1a priorities before proceeding to broader categories of eligibility.”
To reach the desired level of herd immunity by the end of May, 1.8 million individuals would need to be vaccinated every day between Jan. 15 and May 31, including weekends and holidays, per the American Hospital Association. Adhering to a phased approach leads to slower administration, but its purpose is to minimize deaths and comorbidity, Swann said.
“If we focus only on speed, then we could do so at the expense of not hitting some of the groups that are the highest priority,” she said.
Vaccinations expected to accelerate soon
Operation Warp Speed “was quite focused” on the production of a COVID-19 vaccine and that could have led to fewer resources focused on last-mile delivery and administration, Swann said.
States are awaiting additional funds to help vaccinate their populations. Azar said Tuesday states “have ample funding,” but it hasn’t gotten deposited into accounts yet.
Goldsby said the initial approach to reserve half the stash for the necessary second dose was “a terrible idea,” as a brief lapse in judgment could cause an entire batch of the highly sensitive vaccines to be ruined. The production of the vaccines is not a concern in the early going, he added.
“You might’ve held back 20% if manufacturing couldn’t keep pace, but from what I understand, manufacturing is outpacing inoculation right now,” he said.
Complicating matters is that the two available COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. require two doses weeks apart and storage in cold temperatures. More traditional, non-mRNA vaccines will be easier to distribute safely and will help accelerate vaccine administration in the U.S., Goldsby said, creating more shipments for FedEx and UPS.
FedEx has also prepared to ship vaccines internationally as needed. In Canada, FedEx Express is delivering vaccines with the help of Innomar Strategies’ cold-chain storage and packaging services.
“We will play a critical role in the distribution of vaccines around the world for months to come,” FedEx Chief Marketing Officer Brie Carere said in December.
USA TODAY contributed to this report.