Biden at Pfizer: We’ll approach normalcy ‘by the end of the year’

President Joe Biden boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, en route to New Castle County Airport in New Castle, Delaware. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz via Flickr Public Domain)

By Susan J. Demas, Michigan Advance

President Joe Biden and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer joined Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla on Friday afternoon for a tour of the pharmaceutical company’s Portage facility — home to the first COVID-19 vaccine doses that were shipped in December.

“I believe we will be approaching normalcy by the end of the year,” Biden said. “God willing, this Christmas will be different than the last. But I can’t make that commitment to you.”

Biden toured a warehouse with 350 ultra-cold freezers, per a pool report. Each of them contained 360,000 doses of COVID vaccines, according to Amy Rose, a Pfizer spokesperson.

The trip was postponed from Thursday due to the frigid, icy weather conditions. The extreme cold weather across much of the country has delayed 6 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, slowing a vaccination rate that has been steadily rising since the Biden administration took office last month.

There have been 27.1 million COVID cases in the United States and almost 500,000 deaths. In Michigan, there are almost 580,000 cases and almost 15,300 deaths.

Michigan has administered more than 1.7 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. The state’s vaccination goal is to get least 70% of Michiganders age 16 and older inoculated as soon as possible, with a rate of 50,000 shots per day.

Whitmer praised Biden for working “diligently to support Michigan’s vaccine operation since he took office four weeks ago, and today he followed through on his promise to visit our state and personally thank the hard-working Michiganders who are supplying the vaccine to the country. The number of shots going into arms has increased dramatically since President Biden took office, and the president and I will not stop working until this pandemic is over once and for all. It’s heartening to know that Michigan has such a strong ally in the White House as we continue to curb this virus, equitably distribute vaccines, and work to return to life as normal.”

Pfizer’s 1,300-acre Kalamazoo manufacturing site, the largest in the company’s network, is one of the three U.S. manufacturing plants engaged in the manufacturing of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. The site employs 2,240 full time employees and 540 contractors and is involved in the producing, labeling, packaging, freezing and shipping Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. Pfizer’s engineers in the plant have also supported the invention and design of the ultra-cold vaccine thermal shipper that transported millions of doses of vaccine across the country.

The president spoke of the challenges of getting the pandemic under control.

“You’ve seen the devastation of this virus on your family, your community, but you’re stepping up. You’re saving lives here — the lives of your loved ones, your neighbors, your fellow Americans,” Biden said.

He also urged Congress to take up the $1.9 billion COVID relief bill.

“My hope is that Republicans in Congress listen to their constituents. According to the polls, there is overwhelming bipartisan support,” Biden said.

Several Democratic elected officials were at Pfizer, including U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.).

This visit is a reflection of all the Michigan workers who have been involved in this extraordinary undertaking. Their efforts are not only saving lives but bringing us closer to finally defeating this virus,” said Peters. “As Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, I will continue working with the Biden Administration to ensure that vaccines are free and widely available to every community as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

As the Advance previously reported, Michigan health officials announced Thursday night that the state would experience delays in receiving vaccine doses.

“We ask that Michiganders confirm their appointments prior to traveling and to have patience as providers seek to reschedule any appointments,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health. “Unfortunately, distribution of the vaccine in this circumstance is simply out of our control.”

The White House gave a briefing on the vaccine delays earlier Friday. The backlogged doses account for roughly three days’ of delayed shipments affecting all 50 states, due to road closures, snowed-in workers and power outages, said Andy Slavitt, senior adviser on the White House’s COVID-19 response.

Slavitt told reporters that some states have been able to use existing inventory to make up for the delayed doses, and that 1.4 million of the delayed doses were in transit Friday. The remainder of the backlog is expected to be delivered within the next week, he added.

Biden’s pandemic advisers detailed those weather-induced delays shortly before the president flew to Michigan to visit the Pfizer plant.

Earlier this week, Biden’s COVID-19 advisers had touted an average vaccination rate of 1.7 million per day, up from less than 900,000 when Biden took office.

The administration has sought to increase doses going to states, as well as set up mass-vaccination centers across the country. Five new sites will be opening within the next two weeks, Slavitt said Friday — one in Pennsylvania, at the Philadelphia Convention Center, and four across Florida, in Orlando, Miami, Jacksonville and Tampa.

Federal officials emphasized that they are working with states to determine where those new vaccine sites are located.

But as state and federal officials attempt to continue increasing the vaccination rate, they also need to get some areas back to where they were before the weather delays.

Millions of people in Texas, Louisiana and other areas affected by the deadly winter storms have faced days without power in their homes and businesses. Some 2,000 COVID-19 vaccination sites also are in areas with power outages, Slavitt said.

That means those vaccine sites haven’t received doses, which have strict requirements for maintaining a certain temperature and being used within a set period of time.

“We don’t want to ship doses to those locations and have them sitting at a site where they might expire, so the vaccines are sitting safe and sound in our factories and hubs, ready to be shipped out as soon as the weather allows,” Slavitt said.

States across the country have seen the ripple effects of the winter storms.

Virginia officials said Thursday that an estimated 106,800 vaccine doses would be delayed, forcing multiple vaccination events scheduled for the next few days to be postponed. Some Virginia health care providers also reported delays of the supply kits needed to administer vaccines.

As of Thursday, North Carolina had not yet received this week’s doses of the Moderna vaccine, and had received only a limited number of the state’s Pfizer vaccine doses, state officials said.

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.