CHAPEL HILL — As the first COVID-19 vaccines recently rolled off a UPS plane in Louisville, a proud Tar Heel felt a tug at his insides watching them, knowing his work would soon put millions of vials into the hands of doctors.
As president of UPS Healthcare, Wes Wheeler has directed the vaccine's nationwide delivery, managing details down to the Bluetooth device on every package. As the thermal shippers full of vaccine fanned out across the country, Wheeler could track every one within 10 feet.
Operation Warp Speed aimed to deliver those thermal shippers at sites across America — all contingencies Wheeler had helped plan for months, orchestrating the country's most critical holiday rush.
Back home in Chapel Hill after juggling Congressional testimony, a White House meeting and a trip to UPS headquarters in Atlanta, Wheeler paused to let events soak in.
"It didn't really dawn on us until the plane landed in Louisville and Capt. (Houston) Mills came off the plane with the first vaccine," Wheeler said. "What an honor. I just feel a moral obligation to do this, and do this now."
Wheeler and health care officials nationwide have long waited for the Food and Drug Administration to grant approval to a COVID-19 vaccine, and once the federal agency gave the nod to Pfizer and BioNTech, the planners pounced.
Pfizer designed a special package to keep the vaccine at the required subfreezing temperature, equipped with both a GPS tracking device and a temperature probe — all of which can send data to the UPS command center.
Each thimble-sized 2ml vial contains five doses, Wheeler said, and a tray carries 195 vials. Each 80-pound thermal shipper contains five trays, measuring roughly the size of a two-drawer file cabinet.
Called an "irregular," these two-handle shippers carry a gold label, giving them top position on a UPS aircraft and granting them first-off-the-plane status.
"It's like getting a priority pass at Disneyland," Wheeler said.
But once the most highly sought cargo in the world reaches its UPS hub with its Bluetooth tracker and its temperature probe, the vaccine gets loaded onto UPS trucks along with the boxes of Christmas presents. A driver who delivers the vaccine might drop off a pair of hockey skates 30 minutes later.
"They're in the brown truck, the normal driver with Christmas presents," Wheeler said. "The drivers all know they're carrying the vaccine. They all know."
Wheeler came to the Raleigh-Durham in 1989 to help build the Glaxo Smith Kline research facility, and has bounced in and out of the region since then. Most recently, he was CEO of Marken, a global supply-chain strategy firm, until UPS acquired it in 2016.
Of that first round of vaccine deliveries he helped arrange, nearly 3,000 doses arrived at UNC Medical Center. Cheers rose from the staff when they came.
The UNC pharmacy team had dry ice ready, and hospital police stayed nearby as the carts moved the vaccine.
The number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals has reached a new high most every day in recent weeks, and medical staff expects the surge to continue well into January.
"That's frustrating and discouraging for our frontline workers, who have been battling this virus for so many months," hospital spokesman Alan Wolf said. "But the vaccine's arrival, and witnessing the first shots being given, was exciting and emotional. Several of the first recipients remarked how this was a bright spot at the end of a long, challenging and dark year.
"There were tissues around the room and a few tears."
Somewhere in Chapel Hill, Wheeler caught a few hours of sleep.
Another shipment would come soon.