A sign blocks an on ramp to Interstate 410 on Friday in San Antonio, Texas. Many roads, highways and interstates remain closed due to icy conditions.

A sign blocks an on ramp to Interstate 410 on Friday in San Antonio, Texas. Many roads, highways and interstates remain closed due to icy conditions. Eric Gay / AP

Winter Storm Hampers COVID Vaccine Shipments and Distribution

Biden administration officials express confidence in mitigating the impacts. 

The massive winter storm hitting large portions of the United States has caused delays in the federal government’s shipment and delivery of coronavirus vaccines, and Biden administration officials are working to remedy the problems.

The arctic blast this week left millions without power and water in the southern and central parts of the United States and it’s now heading east. It comes about two months into the federal government’s vaccine rollout and just shy of a month after President Biden took office and started ramping up the efforts, which include establishing federally-run vaccine sites and shipping vaccines to community health centers. 

“We are experiencing delays in COVID-19 vaccine shipments and deliveries,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a briefing on Thursday. “[The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and federal partners are working closely with the jurisdictions, as well as manufacturing and shipping partners, to assess weather conditions and to help mitigate potential delivery days—delays and cancellations...We're also working with our partners to move up scheduled deliveries whenever possible and to surge shipment operations through the end of the week into the weekend. We're in conversation about extended hours and additional appointments to try and reschedule shots, given the storm.” 

Andy Slavitt, White House senior adviser for COVID-19 response, said during a briefing on Friday that all 50 states have been impacted. They have a backlog of about 6 million vaccine doses due to the weather, which represents “three days of delayed shipping, but many states have been able to cover some of this delay with existing inventory,” he said. The distribution chain has been impacted due to logistical challenges at FedEx, UPS and McKesson (a pharmaceutical distributor helping the federal government); road closures; and over 2,000 vaccines sites being in areas with power outages. 

“Because of 72-hour cold-chain constraints, we don’t want to ship doses to those locations and have them sitting in a site where they might expire,” said Slavitt. “So the vaccines are sitting safe and sound in our factories and hubs ready to be shipped out as soon as the weather allows.” 

Officials are already working to clear the backlog as weather conditions improve in some areas. On Friday, 1.4 million doses were in transit and officials expect all backlog doses to be sent out within the next week (with the majority sent within the next few days). Slavitt said the administration and its partners will be able to handle the backlog and the new production line coming next week.

Also, “even as we manage the weather, on the one hand, we are pushing ahead with plans to get more vaccines to more places to get more Americans vaccinated,” he said. He announced the federal government would be opening five additional vaccine centers in partnership with the states. One will be in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which will be able to administer 6,000 doses per day, and four will be in Florida (Orlando, Miami, Jacksonville and Tampa), which will be able to administer 12,000 per day collectively. 

The selections were based on the CDC and Federal Emergency Management Agency’s framework to vaccinate the most vulnerable populations and promote equity. The federal government will be sending teams to help set them up and they expect them to open within the next two weeks, he said. 

Separately, Bob Fenton, acting FEMA administrator, said on CBS’ “This Morning” on Friday that the “pandemic hasn’t limited” the agency’s ability to get relief to Texas, the state most impacted by the winter storm. 

“I've had staff there from the pandemic as we were in the process of opening many community vaccine centers across many states,” he said. “In fact, we are still hopeful to set up some three community vaccine centers next week in Houston, Dallas, and Arlington. So, it allowed me to have staff there ready to start responding to this.” 

The Biden administration announced on Tuesday that it has increased the number of weekly vaccine doses to states to 13.5 million per week, which is a 57% increase since Inauguration Day. It also doubled the vaccine supply to its pharmacy partnership program (2 million per week will be sent).

In the United States, over 41 million individuals have received their first vaccine dose and over 16 million have been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC’s latest data, which equates to roughly 12% and 5% of the country’s population.

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