SPAN Alaska rushes COVID-19 vaccine freezer to America’s northernmost city [ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Posted on 12.30.2020]

December 21, 2020

Dear Span Customers,

The nationwide effort to defeat COVID-19 is bringing out the best in people. The team at Span Alaska Transportation had to take extraordinary action to ship a special refrigeration unit all the way to the top of the world to ensure it was on site before the community’s first vaccines arrived.

Pfizer’s record-breaking COVID-19 vaccine is quickly being shipped throughout the nation, including to remote communities in Alaska. But the vaccine must be kept at extraordinarily low temperatures, nearly 100°F below zero, requiring many small hospitals to acquire specialized refrigerators. Samuel Simmons Memorial Hospital in Utqiagvik (formerly known as “Barrow”) was no exception.

Alaska is more than twice the size of Texas, which means Utqiagvik, America’s northernmost city, is approximately 2,000 miles from Seattle. Shipping anything there requires advanced planning, especially something large that requires special handling. When the hospital’s Vice President of Facilities Tom Elkins realized the supplier in Indiana had not shipped the specialized refrigerator in time for it to arrive before the vaccines, he called Jennifer Knight, Customer Service Manager at Span Alaska.

“He knew the vaccines would be ruined without that refrigerator,” Knight said, “so he was very emphatic about how important it was to the people of Utqiagvik.”

The refrigerator had made it to Span Alaska’s facility in Auburn, Washington, where it was already loaded into a 40-foot shipping container and sitting on a truck bed, about to be loaded onto a cargo ship. Jennifer hurried to her warehouse crew and told them the situation.

“When I told them where we needed to get it to, and that it was a freezer for the vaccines, they responded, ‘Let’s get on it,’” Knight said. “Our warehouse crew did an amazing job. It took them over two hours to get to that thing. It was at the very nose of the container, a 40-foot shipping container. But they were just very gung-ho and unloaded everything that was inside that container.”

The Span Alaska team then repackaged the refrigerator to be shipped on an airplane and contacted Alaska Air Forwarding. The refrigerator is over seven feet high, so it needed to be sent on a cargo-specific airplane.

But there are only two cargo flights per week from Anchorage to Utqiagvik, so if they missed a flight, it would be days until the next, potentially too late to save the vaccines. Knight, in Washington, and Elkins, in Utqiagvik, stayed in close contact with each other and with the cargo crews each transfer station.

“We had to make sure we had points of contact at the various airports to make sure it got off one plane and onto the next in a timely fashion,” Knight said. “It was fun. You know, you get that rush of adrenaline when you have to accomplish something important quickly.”

“Jennifer and her team her in Auburn and David Cate and his Anchorage team found a way to get this tall unit on airplanes from Auburn to Anchorage to Utqiagvik,” said Span Alaska Transportation Executive Vice President Michael Johnson. “Outstanding teamwork, cooperation and creativity. At the end of the day, we helped the medical team in Utqiagvik get the vaccine. We can all be proud of our teammates and our company.”

Span Alaska Transportation is a subsidiary of international shipping company Matson.

It took real team work but SPAN Alaska figured out how to ship this oversized freezer from Seattle to Utqiagvik before the first shipment of COVID-19 vaccine arrived. (SPAN Alaska photo)