A Michigan doctor and his silver pickup truck are playing a key role in getting the Covid-19 vaccine to remote parts of the state.
Dr. Richard Bates drove almost 150 miles earlier this month to take a cooler carrying 130 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine from the MidMichigan Medical Center in Midland to their hospital in Alpena – a city of about 10,000 people on Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay.
The trip takes almost three hours each way and Alpena’s about 70 miles from the interstate, so much of the drive is on two-lane roads.
Bates is an OB-GYN doctor and the regional vice president of medical affairs at MidMichigan Health, which received a shipment of 2,925 doses of the vaccine on December 16.
He was on the road hours after a UPS truck made the delivery, and the first doses were administered in Alpena later that day.
It was just two days after an ICU nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, New York City, became one of the first people in the United States to get the vaccination.
MidMichigan Health also shipped doses to other facilities in its system, which serves 23 counties.
Bates is from Alpena and compared delivering the vaccine to his hometown to delivering a baby.
“Seeing our staff receive the vaccine was an unbelievable experience, much like delivering a new baby and handing that baby of to parents, who have just spent months and sometimes years thinking and dreaming and placing their hopes in that baby,” he told CNN’s Bianna Golodryga. “To see our staff with tears and taking pictures of them getting the vaccine and sharing it with their families – it was quite special.”
The US government’s Operation Warp Speed had promised to that 20 million vaccine doses would be administered by January 1, but that effort is behind schedule.
The Pfizer vaccine has to be kept at ultra-cold temperatures, which creates a logistical challenge for smaller hospitals and facilities that don’t have special freezers that can reach at least minus-75 degrees Celcius. It can be packed in dry ice for transport and can be kept in a refrigerator for up to 5 days.
Health officials around the US have been preparing for months to distribute the vaccines and deliver them safely to far-flung communities.
MidMichigan Medical Center bought two ultra-cold freezers before the Pfizer vaccine was authorized by the FDA.
Another vaccine by Moderna can be stored at minus-20 degrees Celsius and kept in a refrigerator for up to 30 days before it expires.
The vaccine is providing a glimmer of hope for health care workers, who are struggling to care for record numbers of Covid-19 cases.
At least 340,956 people have died in the United States from Covid-19, according to Johns Hopkins University and health experts fear that the spread will get even worse because of increased travel and family gatherings over the holidays.
Alpena County has had 1,134 reported Covid-19 cases and 25 deaths.
Bates said that helping deliver the vaccine has been a powerful experience.
“The feelings in the room and the emotions were tangible, they were real and that was just really something special to be part of,” he said.
He’s made another delivery since then and has two more trips scheduled next week.