SALT LAKE CITY — As state officials and health care providers gear up for early distribution of Utah's first batches of COVID-19 vaccines, Utah Inland Port Authority officials have an eye on Utah's northern cargo network.
That's because the area is a crucial touchpoint for what port authority executive director Jack Hedge called the "cold chain" — a network of refrigerated warehouses, storage facilities and trucks meant to move frozen goods from point A to point B.
Today, Utah's cold chain corridors mainly move seafood from the Pacific Northwest, produce from California, and pharmaceuticals from the Midwest, Hedge said. But when distribution for COVID-19 vaccines gear up to larger quantities — depending on availability and the nationwide rollout — that region of Utah's logistics network will likely become more important than ever. And not just for Utah, but for other states in the Intermountain West.
"What people need to understand is the same logistics network is going to be used for that COVID supply chain," Hedge said. "So this area, this region, is super important when you get down to moving cargo like that. It's super important every day, and it's really going to be important when the vaccine starts to be distributed."
Utah's northern corners, reaching down into Weber and Davis counties and parts of Salt Lake County, have a "high concentration" of refrigerated cargo, Hedge said, because that's where I-80, I-84 and I-15 all intersect.
"It's one of the most important crossroads for refrigerated cargo" in the western U.S., said Donald Ludlow, vice president of CPSC, a national consulting firm that specializes in transportation and logistics analysis and policy that is a consultant for the Utah Inland Port Authority. "Utah's highways and railways are critical for maintaining national flows for cold chain logistics."
But shipping COVID-19 vaccines isn't the same as shipping frozen chicken or vegetables. It's far more complicated.
The two COVID-19 vaccines that are closest to approval, made by Pfizer and Moderna, both have specific requirements to safely and effectively store their vaccines before use. Moderna's vaccine must be stored at -4 degrees Fahrenheit, closer to regular freezer temperature. But Pfizer's vaccine needs to be stored at -94 degrees Fahrenheit — so cold that the vaccine will need to be shipped across the country in special, subzero freezer boxes.
Pfizer's vaccine is also expected to lead to high demand for dry ice, which can be used by hospitals or clinics to maintain the vaccine's subzero temperatures in temporary storage boxes for up to 15 days before being administered. If the vaccines are removed from the boxes and placed in a regular freezer, then they need to be used within five days.
Those sensitive requirements place added pressure on the nation's cargo carriers — including airlines, storage facilities and truck drivers — to get the precious cargo delivered on time and undisturbed.
Rick Lakin, immunization director at the Utah Department of Health, said hospitals are relying on the carriers the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be using to ship the vaccine vials on time, properly and according to their orders.
"So I hope they've got all their ducks in a row," Lakin said. "I hope when we put in an order, it's got to be delivered in a couple of days."
In Utah, the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines that will be reserved for front-line health care workers and long-term care facilities is expected to be delivered in mid-December, Lakin said. For the entire month of December, Lakin estimated Utah will receive around 85,000 total vaccines. The next major group to gain access will likely be "essential workers," Lakin said, but state officials are still working to classify who those essential workers will be. It remains to be seen how many more will come in the early months of 2021 or when other Utahns may have access to the vaccine.
It will likely take time for wide distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to ramp up — but Hedge said the hope is Utah's logistic system, particularly the state's part in the cold chain, is prepared. He said the port authority is in early talks with trucking companies and storage facilities to make sure that's the case.
"Are there things that they need? Are there shortcomings that they see? Are there things we can do to enhance that cargo flow?" Hedge said. "Do we need to chill our warehouses further? What's the best way for us to get the equipment in here to be able to do that? For trucking companies, for example, is there is a lack of truck parking available where they can plug their refrigerated units in and not have to idle their trucks?"
These talks are in their early stages, and it's too soon to tell whether any part of Utah's cold chain might have weaknesses that could impact the vaccine. Ludlow pointed out Utah's and the U.S.'s cold chain "already functions well" — but the special requirements around the COVID-19 vaccines will put it to the test.
Jason Fowler, president and chief operating officer of Freightlink — a Murray-based freight forwarding company that acts as a kind of "travel agent" for freight to coordinate contracts, as Fowler put it — said the COVID-19 pandemic has already uniquely strained the logistics business.
"The freight industry as a whole right now is congested already," Fowler said, noting that e-commerce has "just taken off like crazy" as more people have turned to purchasing goods from the internet. "So we've already got a capacity crunch right now and it could get worse as vaccines roll out, and the vaccines will need to take priority."