Three semi-trucks loaded with the nation's first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine rolled out of the parking lot of the Pfizer manufacturing plant early Sunday morning, met with cheering crowds of local residents who said they were proud of their hometown's contribution to science, and helping to bring the end to the coronavirus pandemic.
The caravan of FedEx, UPS and Boyle Transportation trucks — led and tailed by unmarked police cars — pulled out of the parking lot about 8:25 a.m., headed to airports and distribution centers on a historic journey.
Millions of doses of the company's coronavirus vaccine were inside those trucks, and could be injected into the arms of the American people as early as Monday morning.
“I’m proud of our Pfizer,” said Susan Deur, 62, of Plainwell, who stood outside the plant for hours in 35-degree temperatures Sunday morning to watch the trucks leave. She said she’ll get the vaccine when it’s her turn.
Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine, which is about 95% effective, is the first to leap all federal regulatory hurdles except one, the blessing of Robert Redfield, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If he signs off, Pfizer has said it will deliver 6.4 million doses around the country in this initial shipment. Michigan's share of that first delivery is 84,825 doses — or 87 packages that each contain 975 doses.
Health care workers and emergency medical personnel will be the first in Michigan to receive the vaccine, as the biggest mass vaccination effort in the nation's history takes an important step toward trying to stop the spread of a virus that so far has infected 16 million Americans and killed 300,000.
Denny LaPoint, 74, of Vicksburg stood outside with a camera, eager to get a view of the action. He arrived outside the plant at 1:30 a.m. Sunday, but when he saw nothing was happening, went back home and returned about 4 a.m.
"I thought this was a chance to see history in the making," said LaPoint, who is taking a photography independent study class at Western Michigan University.
The challenge of keeping the vaccine at very cold temps
Because Pfizer's vaccine must be frozen at the ultra-cold temperature of minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit or lower for storage, shipping doses to hospitals and public health agencies is a challenge.
The vaccines can be kept safely at 36-46 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 24 hours or at room temperature for no more than two hours after it thaws, the company says.
That means hospitals and public health agencies around the state have been buying ultra-cold deep freezers to store the Pfizer vaccine, and the company had to come up with creative ways to ship it.
Pfizer created temperature-controlled thermal shippers that use dry ice to maintain ultra-cold temperatures for up to 10 days unopened. Some of the boxes will be sent by air to hubs around the U.S., the company says, and then delivered to the sites where they'll be administered. Others will be delivered by ground transport.
The company said it is taking precautions to ensure that the vaccines stay cold enough during shipping.
"We will utilize GPS-enabled thermal sensors with a control tower that will track the location and temperature of each vaccine shipment across their pre-set routes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," the company said in a fact sheet about vaccine distribution.
Once the ultra-cold boxes of vaccines arrive, they can remain in the thermal shippers for as long as 30 days, as long as the dry ice is replaced every five days, the company says. And the vials can be stored for up to five days at temperatures of 17-28 degrees Fahrenheit.
The state's roughly 600,000 health care workers are the highest priority for this vaccination effort, and will get the first doses in Michigan. After that, people who live and work in long-term care facilities will get vaccines, followed by other essential workers and people who are at high risk for severe illness or death from COVID-19.
"Within two weeks of vaccine being shipped to Michigan, all hospitals and health departments across the state will receive a shipment," Sutfin said.
"At this time, we are not releasing additional details about which hospitals or local health departments are receiving shipments of the vaccine, how much vaccine they will be receiving and when shipments are expected.
"This is due to concerns about security as well as the fact this information is continually changing as we receive additional information from the federal government and additional sites are enrolled to receive the vaccine."
Following the initial delivery of the first 6.4 million doses of Pfizer's vaccine distributed nationally, the company is expected to send out weekly shipments of its vaccine, totaling 33.6 million additional doses before the end of the year, said U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar during a December 2 news briefing.
Because Pfizer's vaccine requires two doses, spaced 21 days apart, Azar noted that Pfizer is on track to deliver enough coronavirus vaccine for 20 million Americans in December alone.
"Vaccines will only bring this pandemic to an end if enough Americans choose to take these vaccines," Azar said. "Having substantial quantities of a safe and effective vaccine that's been authorized by FDA before the end of the year is a remarkable achievement and it will start saving lives very soon."
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Detroit Free Press, Bridge Michigan and Michigan Radio have teamed up to report on Michigan hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic. If you work in a Michigan hospital, we would love to hear from you. You can contact Kristen Jordan Shamus at firstname.lastname@example.org, Robin Erb at email@example.com or Kate Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org.