December 14, 2020 -- As health care administrators and federal officials coordinate COVID-19 vaccine distribution this weekend, they’re paying attention to one of the essential items needed to ship the doses safely — dry ice.
The vaccines must be stored well below freezing temperatures, which requires massive amounts of dry ice and temperature-controlled refrigeration units. The demand means a boon for the dry ice industry but also potential shortages.
“Our inventory is a little shot. We’ve ramped up double our normal volume at this point,” Chris Vida, owner of Dry Ice Depot in New Jersey, told CNBC.
The business ships about 40,000 to 50,000 of dry ice per day. Now that shipping companies, hospitals and pharmacies are calling in orders, the company sent out 70,000 per day during the last week. To fulfill orders and make sure COVID-19 vaccines can be distributed, some dry ice companies will work through the holidays.
“There is no sleep for the vaccine or the COVID virus,” Marc Savenor, president of Acme Dry Ice in Boston, told CNBC.
Dry ice shortages could affect other industries as well. Earlier this week, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said the state is preparing for a shortage that could hinder the state’s cheese industry. The Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association also requested that 350,000 pounds of dry ice be set aside each week for shipping cheese, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Dry ice, which is a solid form of carbon dioxide, can’t be stockpiled and returns to its gaseous state within days, so hospitals are seeking long-term contracts to keep the supply coming. Dry ice companies are trying to help hospitals calculate how much they need to keep vaccines at the right temperatures.
“Now all the questions are starting and, you know, there’s a lot of confusion out there,” Vida said. “People really don’t know how it’s going to be stored, how we’re going to ship.”
Health care workers are also learning how to handle dry ice, when to replenish it and how to avoid health risks. They need to wear protective gear to avoid frostbite and not inhale the carbon dioxide. Airlines and transportation companies are also taking extra precautions as they ship large quantities of dry ice.
On Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a safety alert about transporting “larger than typical quantities” of dry ice. At higher altitudes with reduced atmospheric pressure, dry ice tends to sublimate and return to its gaseous state more quickly, which could pose safety risks to pilots, passengers and ground crew who load cargo.
“When properly vented and shipped in small quantities, dry ice poses little risk to aircraft occupants,” according to the alert. “However, when a large amount of dry ice is involved, sublimation can cause serious risks.”
Along the vaccine distribution supply chain, workers are preparing for the next several busy months.
“Obviously, it’s all hands on deck with the COVID-19 vaccine,” Tim Gentry, operations manager of Pacific Dry Ice in Benicia, California, told ABC 7 News.
Thousands of dry ice pellets and blocks are ready to go, and the company is receiving calls across the state and West Coast.
“It’s great to be a part of this the solution, playing our part from manufacturer to distribution and to folks who need it,” Gentry said.