O'Hare at the center of life or death vaccine logistics
O'Hare International Airport is best known for reuniting people and connecting business travelers, but in the near future, it will command attention for helping deliver shipments of a very precious cargo.
And not only the nation's busiest airport, but the region's highways will be a crucial conduit in the supply chain involving billions of COVID-19 vaccines headed to Chicago, the suburbs and across the country.
"Moving the vaccine through its complex supply chain at the desired national and global scales poses unprecedented challenges due to the special handling requirements," Northwestern University Transportation Center Director Hani S. Mahmassani said.
"Any kind of major logistical plans for the U.S. are going to involve Chicago as a hub. We already know that O'Hare is playing a critical role."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to rule in the coming days on granting an emergency use for COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna Inc. That could mean inoculations coming to health care workers as soon as the third week of December, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Friday.
United and American airlines are used to conveying flu vaccines. But the COVID-19 specimens are high-maintenance, particularly Pfizer's version that requires storage in temperatures of minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.
If the FDA grants approval, 20 million doses could be distributed in December, with 60 million in January and 100 million in February, officials with the federal government's Operation Warp Speed said Thursday.
For months, airlines, trucking and freight companies, plus state, federal and local agencies, have strategized the logistics of conveying massive shipments of temperamental vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna manufacturing plants to the U.S.
"If we woke up to the news of there being a viable vaccine earlier this month and just then decided we wanted to help distribute it around the world -- it would have been impossible," United officials stated.
In March, the carrier pivoted to run more cargo-only flights and has been troubleshooting with shipping container providers so it's poised to offer more than 15 container options and "can support a variety of temperature needs whether ambient, cool or frozen."
American Airlines in November began conducting trial flights on Boeing 777-200s between Miami and South America to test the durability of cooling containers for a COVID-19 vaccine. Those include high-tech containers with temperature controls or standard ones that use dry ice.
One 777-200 aircraft has the capacity to hold more than 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine, a United spokeswoman said.
Transporting vaccines once an aircraft touches down is another moving part.
With COVID-19 vaccines, "you're moving a lot of product very fast," Mahmassani said. "You cannot put it on any old truck. You have to be sure all the handoffs are taking place correctly."
FedEx is coordinating with the Operation Warp Speed vaccine team, spokeswoman Shannon Davis said.
"For more than a decade we have shipped flu vaccines each flu season," she noted. "To complement our existing cold chain capabilities in support of the vaccine distribution, we have added ultracold freezers, and enhanced our freezer and refrigerator capacity."
Currently, a large shipment of vaccine is waiting in a Kenosha warehouse for the CDC to give the word for distribution that will be based on federal guidelines, Mahmassani noted.
Complicating matters will be increased holiday deliveries and winter weather putting a strain on the transportation chain.
"(Vaccine distributors) will mostly be relying on specialized refrigerated trucks -- and those who own those likely have agreements in place for the vaccine," Mahmassani said.
"Overall the capacity is tight, as demand is high during this period of the year, but those carriers that have committed the capacity will make it available when the time comes. The vaccine will take priority over other products so delays may affect other types of less critical goods."
You should know
The Illinois tollway is ending a program of reduced fines at midnight Dec. 30. The reductions were put in place in June as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fines will increase from the temporary rate of $3 per missed toll back to $20.
One more thing
Drivers seeking to renew licenses and vehicle registrations will need to postpone in-person visits to the secretary of state facilities until Jan. 5, Secretary of State Jesse White announced last week because of the spike in cases.