'We don't want to have one single dose late,' says Chapel Hill man overseeing UPS vaccine shipments to US hospitals

Posted December 14, 2020 5:35 p.m. EST
Updated December 14, 2020 7:10 p.m. EST

— The first shipments of Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine were shipped Monday to hospitals nationwide, and with each delivery, notifications would go off on Wes Wheeler's phone.

Wheeler, president of UPS’ global Healthcare and Life Sciences Unit, was coordinating vaccine shipments from the logistics giant's hub in Louisville, Ky. By the end of the week, he said, UPS and FedEx will combine to distribute about 3 million doses of the vaccine across the U.S.

"I’m getting text messages every time a vaccine delivery arrives around the country," the Chapel Hill resident said. "It’s a lot more exciting than watching the election, almost like precincts reporting in every five seconds."

UPS has been planning for the massive vaccine distribution effort for months, while also shipping tons of protective gear and test kits during the pandemic.

"We got involved in the first clinical trial for COVID, which was the Pfizer trial, and we provided all the supply chain support for that," Wheeler said. "[We] got to know everyone well and understood the parameters, and we used that knowledge to morph in the next phase, which is getting ready for the commercial distribution."

One of the parameters is the temperature at which the fragile vaccine must be stored: -94 degrees Fahrenheit. UPS designed special packaging to ensure the vaccine could be shipped and delivered at the ultra-cold temperature.

"We have a special technology which we have attached to every package. It allows us to give vaccine delivery a priority in the whole process," he said, noting that the vaccine shipments coincide with the busy holiday shipping season.

"We were planning for just how much we could push through during peak season. Then, we carved out some volume in the network for the vaccines," he said. "We used our modeling that we developed back in the summertime – how much potential volume we could see if two or even three vaccines were available at the same time – so I think we’ve got this covered. So far, everything is perfect."

UPS cargo planes carried vaccine shipments to distribution points across the country Sunday night – "To see that first flight landing yesterday, it was pretty emotional for all of us," Wheeler said – and the vaccine was then loaded onto trucks early Monday to be delivered to dozens of hospitals.

Duke University Health System received its first shipment on Monday, while UNC Health will start getting its doses on Tuesday and WakeMed on Thursday.

"Failure is not an option. That’s why I’m watching every shipment today. I don’t normally watch every shipment, but in this particular case, I am," Wheeler said. "We don’t want to have one single dose late."

He said he planned to return to the Triangle late Monday before heading to Atlanta to oversee the next wave of shipments.

"I am going to make sure the vaccine makes its way to North Carolina so we can get back to the basketball season," he said. "I am a season ticket holder for [University of] North Carolina basketball, and I am really missing that."

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