Federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), have announced measures designed to get the COVID-19 vaccine distributed throughout the population as quickly and as safely as possible.
DOT’s broad ranging efforts include an extension of the hours of service (HOS) regulatory exemption for commercial truck drivers and fleet operators.
DOT noted that since the onset of the COVID-19 public health emergency, it has worked with other federal agencies, air carriers and aviation stakeholders to ensure continued transport of critical medical supplies and personnel in support of Project Air Bridge.
In support of this effort, the department also issued emergency regulatory relief for flight crews and other aviation entities to support uninterrupted flight operations and respond to increased air cargo demand.
DOT said its modal agencies and Operation Warp Speed (OWS) officials have been coordinating with the private sector companies that will carry the vaccines from manufacturing facilities to the distribution centers and inoculation points. The department stressed that it has established the appropriate safety requirements for all potential hazards involved in shipping the vaccine, including standards for dry ice and lithium batteries.
In October, the Federal Aviation Administration COVID-19 Vaccine Air Transport Team was established to support the safe and expedited transportation and distribution of approved COVID-19 vaccines. This effort also has involved coordination with the DOT Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to ensure the safe transportation of hazardous materials.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) recently extended its HOS exemption to support emergency transportation of vaccines and medical supplies and equipment related to the prevention of COVID-19. Early in the course of the pandemic the agency had decided to provide a nationwide exemption to the HOS regulations for trucking companies and commercial drivers who were providing direct emergency assistance.
DOT is just one of many federal agencies working closely with OWS, the public-private program created by President Trump to rapidly develop and distribute COVID-19 vaccines where they are needed in the U.S. While the military will help coordinate distribution of the vaccines and related supplies, it will not participate in administering them to the population.
Logistics’ Vital Importance
A measure of how important the logistics portion of the effort is viewed is that the OWS chief operating officer is Army General Gustave F. Perna, whose previous post was the commanding officer of the Army Materiel Command.
“The overwhelming majority of Americans will get a vaccine that no federal employee, including the Department of Defense (DOD), has touched,” said Paul Mango, deputy chief of staff for policy at the Department of Health and Human Services. “We have the best logisticians in the world at the DOD, working in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to guide every logistical detail you could possibly think of.”
He added that the transportation planning has included dealing with the need to distribute supplies such as needles, syringes, swabs, adhesive bandages, dry ice and trucks. Mango said that will include a 24-hours-a-day operations center that will know where every vaccine dose is. “If a vaccine dose is at risk of expiring, they will guide the movement of that to someplace else,” he noted.
However, Mango stressed, “The federal military will not be involved in moving any doses or injecting any vaccines.”
OWS partnered with Pfizer and McKesson for a series of trial shipments to delivery locations to test processes and systems, the program revealed in its most recent public progress report.
While the trial shipments did not include actual vaccines or ancillary kitting, they provided the eventual recipients with a first look at the shipping processes and containers, as well as temperature monitors that will be needed for transporting the Pfizer vaccine at sub-zero temperatures, OWS pointed out.
The test shipments will continue to be steered to state-identified locations, which include both public health departments and administration sites, such as hospitals. Additional rehearsals are scheduled in the coming weeks, which will expand shipments across nearly all jurisdictions.
“We are working on our distribution plans constantly,” Gen. Perna said. “We work rehearsals of different scenarios to make sure we are capturing all the nuances of the delivery. Each and every week we get stronger. Each week we are one week closer to distributing the vaccine. We are one week closer to refining to the exactness that we need to have to do this—and I’m very confident in that process.”
Truck Drivers’ Role
One indication of how important trucking’s role is viewed is that truck drivers are included in the essential workers priority group to be administered some of the first doses of the vaccine. Another indication is the extension of the HOS rules exemption for those who will be hauling the vaccines and related supplies in addition to the supplies that FMCSA previously included under the exemption.
Earlier this fall, the agency extended the HOS relief granted to truckers hauling essential goods during the pandemic to the end of the year. In its most recent announcement issued on Dec. 1, FMCSA extended the exemption through Feb. 28, 2021, and expanded the relief to include the transportation of vaccines and those medical supplies and equipment that are related to the prevention of COVID-19.
The exemption applies to carriers and drivers providing direct assistance in support of relief efforts related to the COVID-19 public health emergency. Direct assistance means transportation and other relief services provided by a carrier or its drivers that are needed for the immediate restoration of essential services (such as medical care) or essential supplies related to COVID-19 during the emergency.
In addition to the vaccine and related supplies, also qualifying for the HOS exemption are:
• Livestock and livestock feed.
• Medical supplies and equipment related to testing.
• Diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19.
• Supplies and equipment necessary for community.
• Safety, sanitation and prevention of community transmission of COVID-19 such as masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, soap and disinfectants.
• Food, paper products and other groceries for emergency restocking of distribution centers or stores.
FMCSA also explained that direct assistance does not include routine commercial deliveries, including mixed loads with a nominal quantity of qualifying emergency relief added to obtain the benefits of the HOS emergency declaration.
The agency emphasized that the exemption will not apply to any circumstances it would judge to be dangerous to public safety. For example, drivers are still expected to operate in accordance with state laws and regulations, including compliance with speed limits and other traffic restrictions. Also continuing to apply are prohibitions on texting and using a hand-held mobile phone while driving.
Fleets cannot require or allow drivers who are fatigued, likely to become fatigued, or are ill to operate a commercial vehicle. A driver who informs a carrier that he or she needs immediate rest must be given at least 10 consecutive hours before they are required to return to service.
Also not affected by the exemption are requirements that apply to maintaining insurance, observing prohibitions against operating under the influence of drugs and alcohol. They must continue to observe out of service orders until they have met the applicable conditions for their rescission and the orders have been rescinded by FMCSA in writing.
“This expansion and extension of the modified Emergency Declaration addresses national emergency conditions that create a need for immediate transportation of essential supplies and provides necessary relief from the federal regulations for motor carriers and drivers,” said Wiley Deck, FMCSA Deputy Administrator.