Vaccine development and distribution shows what Americans can do together

My sister and her family have lived for extended periods in five countries where her husband has served in U.S. government assignments. While abroad, they’ve traveled much of the rest of the world.

One time, as they were returning from one of their posts, she told me, “Until you’ve lived in a Third-World country, you have no idea how clean and organized and efficient and reliable America is.”

In the context of America developing and administering COVID-19 vaccines at “warp speed,” I would add some other adjectives, such as enterprising, persistent and brilliant.

All of those characteristics came together for me as I got in a line of cars in late March to get my first COVID shot. 

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, lead scientist in developing the Moderna vaccine, helped pioneer the idea of using “messenger” RNA to create a vaccine.

I was moved to tears as I thought about the science, the public administration, the engineering and the logistics that had come together in an effort to end the pandemic. Now, all those efforts had come home to me, in Manti, Utah. I was going to get a shot that was going to end months of worry.

My biggest scare during 2020 grew out of helping the son of one of my former foster kids with online school. Throughout this school year, I’ve gone to Salt Lake City once a week to do that. I have a second home in Salt Lake where we meet.

One day, I heard a scream coming from the bedroom, followed by sobs. My 8-year-old student had tried to do a flip on my bed and landed on his back on the floor. I hugged him for probably 20 minutes, asked where it hurt and tried to figure out if I needed to take him to the ER.

The incident blew over. But 10 days later, on Christmas, I learned most of my foster son’s family, including the little boy, had tested positive for COVID. I got tested the next day, and the day after that learned I was negative.

Surely stories like that have been repeated zillions of times in the past year.

As I waited in line for my shot (and since then), I thought about some of the remarkable aspects of the development, testing, manufacture and distribution of the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

My concept of vaccines is to shoot a small amount of a germ (usually a dead one) into the body. The body then develops immunity to the bacteria, virus or whatever.

The idea of shooting “messenger” RNA into the body, which triggers the body to produce one part of one of the proteins in the coronavirus, which then causes the body to develop immunity to the whole virus, is pretty stunning.

Like most people in Sanpete, I received the Moderna vaccine. The lead scientist in developing it, including helping pioneer the mRNA strategy, was Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a 35-year-old African-American woman who got her doctorate at the University of North Carolina. I’m familiar with UNC because that’s where one of my foster daughters, who is Hispanic, got her doctorate, also in a health science.

I was cheering right along with people in the plant and on the street in Kalamazoo, Mich. last December as the first Pfizer vaccine rolled out the door.

The vaccine was packed in special boxes from Greenville, S.C. that had sleeves along the sides where dry ice could be dropped to keep the contents at the required temperature until it got to hospital freezers.

Capt. Houston Mills, vice president of flight operations for United Parcel Service, flew the first COVID vaccine from the Pfizer plant in Michigan to the UPS hub in Louisville, Tenn., for distribution to points west of the Mississippi River.

   Each box had thermal sensors that could be tracked by GPS. A control tower was able to track the temperature and location of each box along pre-set routes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

   The pilot who flew the first United Parcel Service plane from Kalamazoo to the company’s hub in Louisville, Ky., was Capt. Houston Mills, vice president of flight operations for UPS and a former Gulf War pilot. He is African-American.

After landing, he said, “I think the gravity of this vaccine, and the hope that it brings, is what makes this a special moment.”

It’s been amazing to hear news reports about the three drug companies scaling up manufacturing to kick out hundreds of millions of doses.

I saw a segment in which the president of Pfizer said that the company didn’t have enough manufacturing space in its plant in Michigan to meet the government targets for output.

“If we had to build a building it would take a year,” he said. Instead, they found some modular components in Texas that could be shipped to Michigan, assumedly on trains and trucks. In no time, the “buildings” were full of equipment and conveyors.

There are so many other things I could mention, such as priorities being set so our doctors and nurses would be the first to be vaccinated, and hearing that all of the patients and staff in our local care centers had been vaccinated.

It only took 15 minutes for me to move four blocks to the front of line in Manti and pull into one of the bays of the fire station. The whole operation was totally organized. A lady with a clip board found my name and checked it off. A few feet further along, another lady asked me a few questions and handed me my vaccine card, which included the date and time of my second shot.

I could hear people in other cars telling the workers, “Thank you for being here,” and “Thank you for your service.”

At the next stop, a Snow College nursing student in a white coat with a big orange “S” on it gave me my shot. Then EMTs from the Manti Ambulance Association asked me to pull into the street and park for a few minutes to make sure I didn’t have a reaction. 

Between the people directing traffic, checking names, handing out cards, giving shots,  supervising the kids giving shots and monitoring people after they had their shots, it took 15-20 people to run the operation. They vaccinated 400 people that day. And wouldn’t you know it: Most of them weren’t getting paid.

As President Biden said, “There is nothing we [Americans] can’t do when we do it together.” I would add: It takes all of us.