PORTAGE, Mich. (WOOD/AP) — All eyes were on West Michigan Sunday as the first shipments of Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine started moving out, en route to hospitals and nursing homes around the country as the nation works to end the pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans this year.

Workers at Pfizer’s Portage facility began packing doses of the coronavirus vaccine into dry ice containers around 6:45 a.m. Sunday. Cheers erupted as the last box was packed up.

People lined the streets outside the facility to celebrate as the first FedEx and UPS semi-trucks carrying the vaccine rolled off the lot at 8:30 a.m.

“The fact that it’s coming out of Grand Rapids and Ford Airport today is a big deal, right and we’re just incredibly honored to be a part of it,” said Stephen Clark, the director of commercial development for Gerald R. Ford International Airport.

FedEx flights carrying the vaccine started leaving Gerald R. Ford International Airport later Sunday morning. The planes were bound for Memphis, where FexEx’s global hub is, to be directed around the country.

“Many months of work and finally gotten an approved vaccine. Today we’re here to see that the vaccine gets shipped out and gets in to distribution,” said Tory Richardson, the president and CEO of Gerald R. Ford International Airport.

On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency authorization of the nation’s first COVID-19 vaccine, which is being manufactured out of the Pfizer plant near Kalamazoo.

Army Gen. Gustave Perna of Operation Warp Speed said at a Saturday press conference that UPS and FedEx will begin delivering Pfizer’s vaccine to nearly 150 distribution centers across the country. Perna said an additional 425 sites will get shipments Tuesday and 66 on Wednesday.

The vaccine is heading to hospitals and other sites that can store it at extremely low temperatures — about 94 degrees below zero. Pfizer is using containers with dry ice and GPS-enabled sensors to ensure each shipment stays colder than the weather in Antarctica.

Doses should be delivered to all vaccination sites identified by states, such as local pharmacies, within three weeks, federal officials said.

The rollout will ensure there is enough vaccine to give people the two doses needed for full protection against COVID-19. That means the government is holding back 3 million doses to give those vaccinated in the first round a second shot a few weeks later.

This map shows two Pfizer locations where COVID-19 vaccines are already being stored and the headquarters of FedEx and UPS’s air hub.

Michigan expects to get 84,000 doses of the vaccine in its first shipment. Officials will give the first shots to health care workers and those living in nursing homes. Those groups are Phase 1A of a four-phase plan to distribute the vaccine based on who is at highest risk of contracting the disease and dying from it.

As of Friday, 430,780 people have been sickened and 10,662 people have died because of coronavirus, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

While the vaccine is a critical step in ending the pandemic, health experts say people should continue to wash their hands frequently, practice social distancing and wear masks, as it will take months for everyone to be vaccinated.

Another vaccine by Moderna will be reviewed by an expert panel this week and soon afterward could be allowed for public use.


— The Associated Press and News 8’s Dana Whyte contributed to this report.