SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - As the first coronavirus outbreaks began, non-profit organization Direct Relief began shipping masks and other personal protective equipment from its Santa Barbara distribution center to locations in China and the U.S. last January.
In the 13 months since, Direct Relief has shipped roughly 70 million masks and 88 million units of other PPE. It has also distributed more than $50 million in grants to partner organizations that were already receiving supplies, but then became financially unstable during the pandemic.
The Santa Barbara warehouse also sends out oxygen concentrators, which are used to treat COVID-19 patients around the world.
“Every loss is a tragedy, and there’s been far too many here in the country and the world,” Direct Relief president and CEO Thomas Tighe said Thursday. “It’s good motivation to keep doing whatever we can to step up.
“Everyone’s a bit overwhelmed: the health systems, the governments at every level. So it’s been an important time and rewarding to do what Direct Relief always does, knowing how important it is to bring whatever you’ve got to this global crisis.”
Now Direct Relief is preparing to store and send out millions of vaccine doses once supply ramps up. The Santa Barbara distribution center already has the capacity to store pallets of several prescription drugs which, like vaccines, require cold storage.
“We do this all the time, so we want to do whatever we can to ease the burden on the state or county or other states or counties," Tighe said.
One large, cold storage area inside the distribution center can store vaccines between 2-8 degrees Celsius (35-46 degrees Fahrenheit). A second large storage area of the same kind is currently being constructed on the other end of the warehouse.
Both would be able to safely hold the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that is pending FDA approval.
The warehouse also features two different kinds of hyper-cold freezers (-20 and -70 degrees Celsius) that can handle even the most fragile shipments, such as the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.
Once vaccine supply overtakes available storage space in hospitals and clinics, Direct Relief could hold more than 100 million doses in its facility at once.
“I think our hope, the role that we would play here is as a distribution site,” Tighe said. “So that we could hold at the hub and then spoke it out to any counties.”
Tighe says Direct Relief is also sharing its "cold chain" knowledge with other countries who are just beginning to vaccinate their populations. Tighe acknowledged that even with proper cold storage at seaports and airports, safely sending vaccines into developing areas will be logistically challenging.
One large focus for Direct Relief--as well as the Biden administration--is community health centers around the U.S., which typically serve ethnic and racial minority communities who have been disproportionately punished by the pandemic.
Direct Relief will contribute $150,000 both Community Health Centers of the Central Coast and Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics, two local community health center organizations.