February 19, 2021 2:30 PM, EST

Extreme Winter Weather Causes Vaccine Shipping Delays

Joggers run down an street empty in Nolensville, Tenn., Feb. 18. (Mark Humphrey/Associated Press)Joggers run down an street empty in Nolensville, Tenn., Feb. 18. (Mark Humphrey/Associated Press)

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WASHINGTON — Extreme winter weather has dealt the first major setback to the Biden administration’s planned swift rollout of coronavirus vaccines, delaying shipment of three days’ worth of shots, or about 6 million doses.

One factor: Shippers like FedEx, UPS and pharmaceutical distributor McKesson all faced challenges with snowed-in workers.

The disruptions caused by frigid temperatures, snow and ice left the White House scrambling to work with states to make up lost ground even as President Joe Biden was set to visit a Pfizer vaccine manufacturing plant near Kalamazoo, Mich. The president’s trip itself had been pushed back a day to Feb. 19 due to wintry weather in the nation’s capital.

White House coronavirus response adviser Andy Slavitt said Feb. 19 that the federal government, states and local vaccinators are going to have to redouble efforts to catch up. The setback from sprawling winter storms comes just as the vaccination campaign seemed to be on the verge of hitting its stride. All the backlogged doses should be delivered in the next several days, Slavitt said, still confident that the pace of vaccinations will recover.

Biden met with workers at a plant that’s producing one of the two federally approved COVID-19 shots. According to the CDC, the two-dose Pfizer vaccine has been administered about 30 million times since it received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 11.

President Biden tours a Pfizer facility in Michigan Feb. 19

President Joe Biden tours a Pfizer manufacturing site Feb. 19, in Portage, Mich. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Nonetheless, bad weather forced many injection sites to temporarily close, from Texas to New England, and held up shipments of needed doses.

Slavitt said the 6 million doses delayed won’t spoil and the vaccine is “safe and sound” under refrigeration in warehouses.

But as shipments resume and scale up, vaccinators in communities across the country are going to have to work overtime to get shots into arms. “We as an entire nation will have to pull together to get back on track,” Slavitt told reporters at the White House coronavirus briefing.

Slavitt said about 1.4 million doses were being shipped Feb. 19 as the work of clearing the backlog begins.

A confluence of factors combined to throw off the vaccination effort. In addition to employees having trouble getting to work at shippers like FedEx and UPS, road closures in many states kept trucks from delivering their assigned doses of vaccine. Also, more than 2,000 vaccination sites were in areas with power outages.

Still, the government is going ahead with plans to open five new mass vaccination centers, one in Philadelphia, and four others in the Florida cities of Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville.

The U.S. had administered an average of 1.7 million doses per day last week, evidence that the pace of the vaccination program was picking up. Now, the question is how long it will take to recover from the impact of the weather-related delays.

Press secretary Jen Psaki said the White House was closely monitoring vaccine deliveries and working with manufacturers, shipping companies and states to speed their distribution.

The delays were so severe that Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on Feb. 18 suggested he would explore sending his state’s National Guard to collect doses from icebound shipping hubs in Memphis, Tenn. (FedEx), and Louisville, Ky. (UPS).

The Republican governor said the state “may have some real issues with supply delivery this week,” and “we have been told it would be a few days late, based on some of the issues around weather in other parts of the country.”

The Virginia Department of Health reported Feb. 18 that it was expecting delays on about 90% of its expected 120,000 doses this week and warned that the delays could cascade into next week.

“Even if the roads are clear in Virginia, the fulfillment of orders and the movement of these vaccine and ancillary supplies may be delayed in other parts of the country,” the department said in a news release.

In North Carolina, none of the more than 163,000 first and second doses of the Moderna vaccine scheduled to arrive this week have been delivered by Biden’s administration, the state health department said. The state also noted that only a limited number of the nearly 127,000 expected Pfizer vaccines have been shipped.

Oklahoma moved to reschedule vaccine clinics to this weekend, when it expects its 110,000 doses to be delivered, aiming to make up appointments from this week.

The ripple effects extended far beyond areas experiencing winter weather. In Arizona, the bulk of the state’s anticipated shipment of Moderna doses was delayed until early next week, forcing the postponement of some vaccination appointments.

Psaki said the White House was working with shippers to speed deliveries of the vaccines once conditions improved and was encouraging states to extend hours for vaccination clinics once they reopen and to swiftly rebook postponed appointments.

“We want to make sure that as we’ve lost some time in some states for people to get needles in arms, that our partners do all they can to make up that lost ground,” said White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines must remain frozen during shipping, with the Pfizer shot requiring super-cold storage temperatures. The White House said it was working with shippers to ensure there was no spoilage of doses during the weather delays.

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