Non-traditional vaccine deliveries fill important void.
UPSer Tony Mazzella saw it and felt it.
The nearly empty island of Manhattan. People shuttered indoors, businesses a shell of their former selves, an empty Times Square. The city that never sleeps seemed in a deep, dark slumber.
College town Ann Arbor was also quiet, and Reggie Byron felt the difference as well. An empty campus at the University of Michigan, where 45,000 students typically fill the streets, had gone quiet. Reggie continued her deliveries of critical care packages to the U of M hospital throughout those early months, but nothing else was the same.
What Tony and Reggie didn't know, couldn't know, were the things happening behind the scenes. Things being worked on months ago that made this week's first deliveries of vaccines possible.
Wes Wheeler, president of UPS Healthcare, remembers those early days. "We started planning this back in April when we got involved with the clinical trials (of vaccines)," Wes said. "That gave us a lot of insight in to how these vaccines would be manufactured and transported, and the nuances of which ones would be at which temperatures and the manufacturing locations."
It wasn't an easy process. The team developed tens of thousands of lane distribution scenarios to make sure UPS had the necessary capacity in its network worldwide to handle the volume.
Wes added that when UPS Healthcare was created a little over a year ago, the intent wasn't to deal with the logistics of a global pandemic, but fate had other plans.
Early on in the pandemic, UPS was recognized as part of the nation's critical infrastructure and the company filled the void caused by the closing of retail facilities. Volume skyrocketed. Perhaps never before had UPS been more essential to the world's economy.
Still, the planning was underway for an even more important role. Invited to be part of the planning of Operation Warp Speed, UPS was at the table as logistical scenarios were developed while public/private partnerships raced to develop and test effective COVID-19 vaccines.
What Tony Mazzella knew for sure was that people were hurting.
"Six months ago, it was a ghost town in the city," he said. "It was hard on everybody."
Spring turned to summer and then to fall as vaccine trials raced to evaluate safety and effectiveness, and UPS was there to take notes every step of the way. Continuing to refine a plan which could deliver doses from a production facility into the arms of people around the world.
Kate Gutmann, chief sales and solutions officer, senior vice president, UPS Healthcare and Life Sciences Unit, put things into perspective recently.
"We worked with Pfizer and 8 of the 10 vaccines in development," Kate said. "The planning paid off."
As it became clear that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine stood the best chance for first approvals by the FDA and similar agencies around the world, the picture came into clearer focus.
Watch interview with Yahoo Finance on preparation and delivery of vaccine shipments.
"This is the moment of truth," Wes said, describing the run-up to the FDA's approval of the vaccine for emergency use. "We have spent months strategizing with Operation Warp Speed officials and our healthcare customers on efficient vaccine logistics, and the time has arrived to put the plan into action."
CEO Carol Tomé announced to the world the collective pride felt among UPSers on the eve of history.
"Vaccine distribution is a key part of moving our world forward by delivering what matters," Carol said. "We have dedicated and hardworking people around the world who have been trained to store, handle, transport and deliver vaccines. We're pleased to support our healthcare partners with smart, efficient logistics for these vaccines that will protect communities and save lives."
UPS Captain Houston Mills, vice president of flight operations, said after piloting the first vaccine-laden flight into UPS's Worldport in Louisville on Sunday, UPS founder Jim Casey would have been proud.
"When he (Jim Casey) started UPS with a $100 loan and two bicycles delivering messages, to think today we would be helping to deliver vaccines that literally could change the lives of people around the world ... I know Mr. Casey would be proud," he said.
"For Reggie in Ann Arbor, ironically only about 90 minutes from one of the vaccine production facilities, she was now, finally, making one of the first deliveries of a vaccine that could end the scourge of COVID-19 illnesses and deaths.
"It makes me feel like I am making a difference in people's lives," she said on the day of the first vaccine delivery. "We always knew our jobs were important, but this takes it to another level."
Tony could not have agreed more. The normally gregarious and larger-than-life New Yorker was reflective, the product of a seemingly endless journey which now has a ray of light at the end of the tunnel.
"This is the most important package I've delivered in my career," he said, referring to his more than 30 years with UPS, moments after making the first delivery to NYU Hospital in Manhattan. "I'm hoping things are going to get back to normal. That people are going to come back to work ... and people can get back to their lives. That's what I'm hoping for with the delivery of this vaccine.