Charlotte-Area Dry Ice Companies, Hospitals Prepare For COVID-19 Vaccine Cold Chain
CMC Dry Ice in Concord ships about 2 million pounds of dry ice each year.
“You’ve got blocks. You’ve got 16-millimeter pellets. You’ve got 10-millimeter pellets. You’ve got three millimeter pellets,” said Mike Coleman, the company’s owner.
In 2016, Coleman started his business buying ice from suppliers and reselling it. But after he had a difficult time getting the ice he needed in February and March of this year, he decided to expand his business to include dry ice production.
It was fortuitous timing: Dry ice is in high demand now as a COVID-19 vaccine prepares for rollout. The vaccine needs to be kept at the kind of ultra-cold temperature that dry ice can provide.
Dry ice is the solid form of carbon dioxide, a byproduct of some industrial processes like making ethanol. When ethanol plants closed down or reduced their output at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, there was a shortage of liquid carbon dioxide and dry ice.
“I would call my vendor and say, ‘I need 5,000 pounds as quickly as you can,’" Coleman said. "And the problem was coming up as, ‘Well, I can get it for you in two weeks.’ Well, I don’t have the luxury of waiting two weeks.”
Coleman expects to launch the production side of CMC Dry Ice by the end of December and said the company will be able to make up to 60,000 pounds per day.
“Let’s say you come in and say, ‘Mike, I need 10 pounds for our Halloween party’ or, ‘I’ve gotta ship a turkey to my mama.’ We custom make that, right then,” he said.
Coleman said he registered with the pharmaceutical company Pfizer to help distribute its vaccine which needs to be kept at minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the company. Dry ice is minus-109 degrees.
CMC will provide Pfizer with special insulated plastic and foam boxes, according to Coleman, which Pfizer can pack with vaccines. Then, he said, Pfizer will send the boxes back to CMC for sanitizing and refilling. Coleman said he doesn’t know how much dry ice Pfizer will need but he’s hoping for several million pounds per year. He said he may need to hire about 15 new employees.
Rob Garner, a regional manager at dry ice company Roberts Oxygen, said he recently got a call from Atrium Health. The hospital system asked about doubling — or even tripling — its current dry ice order.
“[Atrium wanted to know] what their options are, what our distribution footprint is, just so they could make sure that they were in a good spot,” Garner said. “But they really just didn’t have a good, firm understanding of exactly how much they were going to need.”
Dry ice and carbon dioxide businesses across the U.S. have received similar questions, according to Abydee Moore, the president of the Gases and Welding Distributors Association.
“Most of the inquiries that our members are receiving are ‘If we get vaccine approval, if it’s part of our distribution, then will you have dry ice available for us?’ So it’s all speculation,” Moore said.
In preparation for a possible uptick in business, Moore said some companies are buying bigger tanks so they can store more liquid carbon dioxide or purchasing additional dry ice production machines called pelletizers. But she said it’s difficult to predict whether this will mean an overall increase in revenue for the industry.
“Definitely dry ice use and medical facility use is up right now. But other industries like the hospitality industry are really down as a result of all of the shutdowns due to COVID-19,” Moore said.
North Carolina is expected to get about 85,000 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine as early as next week. Atrium Health is one of 11 hospitals in the state receiving an early shipment. Dr. Christine Turley, who leads a vaccine research program at Atrium, told reporters during a call on Monday that hospital systems across the country are worried about the vaccine cold chain.
"Part of what we have to learn is the size of the vials, the numbers of vials we’re getting, what the FDA ultimately authorizes in terms of the time that they will approve the vaccines to be in or out [of the freezer]," Turley said.
Atrium and Novant Health have also purchased ultra-cold freezers to store the Pfizer vaccine. The freezers retail for up to $25,000, depending on size, though spokespeople for the hospital systems declined to specify how much they paid.