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Operation Warp Speed chief showers praise on FedEx, UPS

Pfizer vaccine delivery meets Perna’s high standards

FedEx and UPS are operating the trucks, aircraft and parcel vans to delivery COVID vaccines nationwide. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves & UPS)

U.S. Army Gen. Gus Perna is not one to be awestruck by a well-executed logistics plan. But he’s enamored with FedEx Corp.’s and UPS’ performance during the first week of distribution for Pfizer Inc.’s (NYSE: PFE) COVID-19 vaccine.

The military is a no-excuses, bottom-line world: Get the job done. And Perna has spent years helping manage the Defense Department’s massive logistics requirements, most recently as commander of Army Materiel Command. He also logged time at the Pentagon as Army deputy chief of staff for logistics, ran supply centers for the Defense Logistics Agency and directed logistics for U.S. forces in Iraq, among other stints.

You might say he’s seen it all. 

Still, FedEx (NYSE: FDX) and UPS (NYSE: UPS) have impressed the chief operating officer for Operation Warp Speed, the industry-government partnership tasked with organizing a nationwide supply chain in record time to help quell the worst pandemic in 100 years. Rather than deploy military assets to deliver vaccines, OWS has harnessed the capabilities of commercial industry, supplemented with the Defense Department’s procurement and planning capabilities.

“The reason we’re so confident in what we’re doing is that we have the professionals executing it — whether it’s [pharmaceutical companies] Pfizer, and hopefully Moderna here shortly, but really FedEx and UPS right down to the pharmacies [that will administer doses],” Perna said during Wednesday’s press briefing.  

FedEx and UPS “are demonstrating their professionalism and their organizational culture in execution. The high standards and accountability.”

The express carriers are picking up vaccine shipments with tractor trailers, and taking them to regional airports to catch flights to their package hubs in Memphis, Tennessee, (FedEx) and Louisville, Kentucky, where they are sorted and put on outbound planes across the country. The packages then travel by truck to local terminals, where packages are sorted by neighborhoods and placed on delivery vans for the final leg of the journey.

UPS is also responsible for separately delivering to dosing sites the kits with syringes, needs, alcohol swabs and saline solution.

“Yesterday [Tuesday] I had a phone call with Wes Wheeler from UPS and Richard Smith from FedEx. Both of them were assuring me as we were looking at the weather maps for today in the Northeast and later in the week for the Northwest how we were going to continue the flow of vaccines,” Perna said. “These two leaders knew exactly the weather report. They had people planning, mitigating strategies for distribution, and they were making contact with customers, establishing rules saying if somebody is not there because of the weather we retain the vaccine, it goes back, secured, and delivered the next day.”

Wheeler is president of UPS Healthcare and Smith heads the Americas region for FedEx Express.

“That’s what these two leaders and their companies are involved in. I assured them that I would underwrite [approve skipped deliveries] a leader’s decision in the delivery of the vaccine to ensure driver, pilot safety and safety of the vaccine. I said, ‘Leaders, you make the call, I will underwrite the distribution accordingly.’ 

“I was so impressed by their ability to see themselves make mitigating plans and hold themselves accountable,” Perna said.

Several days earlier, Perna lauded the express delivery companies’ front-line workers.

“FedEx and UPS, I can’t say enough for the men and women, from the leadership all the way down to the persons moving packages from storage capability onto trucks and planes,” he said. “And then the pilots.”

Click here for more FreightWaves and American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]