President Joe Biden toured a state-of-the art coronavirus vaccine plant Saturday as extreme winter weather across broad swaths of the US handed his vaccination campaign its first major setback, delaying shipment of about 6 million doses.
The disruptions caused by frigid temperatures, snow and ice left the White House and states scrambling to make up lost ground as three days' worth of vaccine shipments were temporarily delayed. The president's trip to see Pfizer's largest plant had been pushed back a day due to a storm affecting the nation's capital.
At the Michigan plant, Biden walked through an area called the freezer farm, which houses some 350 ultra-cold freezers, each capable of storing 360,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine. Double-masked, the president stopped to talk with some of the workers, but it was difficult for reporters on the trip to hear what was said.
Earlier in the day, White House coronavirus response adviser Andy Slavitt said the federal government, states and local vaccinators are going to have to redouble efforts to catch up after the interruptions. The setback 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 has set a goal of administering 100 million shots in his administration's first 100 days, and it seemed likely that could be easily accomplished before the storms.
The plant Biden toured, near Kalamazoo, produces one of the two federally-approved COVID-19 shots. According to the CDC, the two-dose Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine has been administered about 30 million times since it received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 11.
Nonetheless bad weather forced many injection sites to temporarily close, from Texas to New England, and held up shipments of needed doses.
In Memphis, a city where some of the doses are stranded, the storm stymied 77-year-old Bill Bayne in his pursuit of his second dose. He got his first shot Jan. 29 and was told he'd hear back about the second sometime this week. With local vaccination sites shut down, no notification came.
Bayne said the eight inches of snow outside his home is the most he's seen in 50 years of living there.
I want that shot bad enough, Bayne said. "I would've gotten there some way.
White House adviser Slavitt said the 6 million doses delayed won't spoil and the vaccine is safe and sound under refrigeration.
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 Friday as the work of clearing the backlog begins.
A confluence of factors combined to throw off the vaccination effort. First, shippers like FedEx, UPS, and pharmaceutical distributor McKesson all faced challenges with snowed-in workers. Then, said Slavitt, road closures in many states kept trucks from delivering their assigned doses of vaccine. And finally, more than 2,000 vaccination sites were in areas with power outages.
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