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White House prioritizing imports of COVID-19 rapid tests

Medical supplies to be ‘block stowed’ for faster unloading off ships

Porcari is helping oversee priority container storage for COVID-19 rapid tests and other medical equipment. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Millions of at-home rapid test kits for COVID-19 are being prioritized by ocean carriers, terminal operators, trucks and trains as the surge in positive tests for the fast-moving omicron variant has boosted demand for the product.

The initiative is being coordinated by the Biden administration’s Port Disruptions and COVID-19 task forces, revealed John Porcari, the administration’s port envoy, when asked during a White House briefing on Wednesday about shortages of rapid tests throughout the country.

“We have a procedure in place, starting with the place of manufacture of those medical supplies, to identify them early as they’re put in containers, make sure those containers are separately identified — what we call ‘block stowed’ — in a position on a ship where they can be the first off, and then prioritized for unloading. That would have to happen, obviously, on a priority basis.”

The administration has asked ocean carriers to evaluate options for offloading containers with critical medical goods at prior ports of call in a rotation to reduce transit time. The Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force recently worked with a medical device company, an ocean carrier, port and terminal operators, and rail operators to expedite import of two dozen shipping containers with critical equipment used in intensive care units, moving up the scheduled arrival date by weeks, according to a White House blog entry on Wednesday.

Asked whether the distribution of 500 million rapid tests — which President Joe Biden announced last month the U.S. would be purchasing for distribution in January — could be slowed by ongoing port disruptions, Porcari said the task forces are “working hard to make sure that those tests are there when they’re needed. … Together, this supply chain, with the millions of people that work on it, have met the challenges so far. We expect to continue to do that.”

The omicron variant has had minor side effects at U.S. ports, Porcari said. “In the very short term, there have been some increased outages from longshore workers and others. So far, that has not disrupted operations.

“As you saw early in the pandemic, there are procedures in place, in terms of personal protective equipment and safety measures, for the workers at the ports, and those will be ratcheted up as needed. There are still challenges, and omicron could surface more, which we’re closely tracking. But as we stand here today, the ports and the supply chains are operating at record levels.”

Porcari noted that inflation-adjusted retail inventories, excluding autos, rose 0.5% at the end of November compared to the end of October, which exceeded pre-pandemic levels and also hit the highest monthly level recorded since 1992.

“Consumers also received 97 to 99% of their packages on time or with minimal delays from the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx and UPS,” he said. “We were able to sustain a record-breaking holiday shopping season.”

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He also underscored measures by West Coast ports to build on recent improvements addressing clogged container yards, including yet-to-be-implemented container dwell fees at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, and a move announced on Monday by the Port of Oakland to expand storage capacity for empty containers to help U.S. exporters.

But Porcari would not speculate as to whether the current supply chain crisis has yet reached its peak.

“I think what is clear is the pandemic laid bare what was the underlying reality, which was that the supply chain was stressed even before the pandemic. And we clearly have changes to make to build a more durable, resilient supply chain.

“One of the great things that’s happened is, with the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, some of the physical upgrades to infrastructure that was built by your parents and grandparents can actually be updated through that infrastructure program.”

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John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.