By Dillon Thomas

DENVER (CBS4) – Millions of COVID-19 vaccinations are being transported across the globe, and in to Denver, thanks to United Airlines. United, which has a major hub in Denver, partnered with Moderna and Pfizer to ship their vaccinations, making them the first and only commercial airline to transport COVID-19 vaccines in the United States.

“This is really a monumental effort for us,” said Matt Miller, Vice President of United’s Denver hub.

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Working in an industry which saw arguably one of the most dramatic financial hits of the coronavirus pandemic, Miller said United pivoted their workforce to help combat the virus. Not only did they implement greater cleaning and filtration systems for their passengers and staff, but they also started flying cargo.

“We’ve flown nearly 9,000 cargo-only missions,” Miller told CBS4’s Dillon Thomas.

Initially the cargo-only flights consisted primarily of PPE like masks, gowns and other items in high demand. However, once the vaccines were ready for distribution United offered up their services.

Pfizer’s vaccines require extremely low temperature storage even during distribution. United already had a system for shipping extremely cold items, primarily using “temperature controlled units.” Those units are large freight-style shipping containers which are electronically monitored to maintain proper shipping requirements.

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While the units have been around for decades, United had to secure permission from the FAA to be able to transport greater amounts of dry ice. The FAA granted them the ability to have five-times the amount of dry ice they were previously limited to.

“(That was) to assure the vaccines are kept stable and at the temperatures needed to move around the system,” Miller said. “(Dry ice and the units)) actually help us keep that temperature stable throughout its entire journey.”

Due to partnership and client confidentiality United could not share the amount of vaccines that have been shipped directly to Colorado through their airline. While the airline as a whole has shipped millions, Miller could confirm both variations of the vaccine have been delivered to Denver on United aircrafts.

The Moderna vaccine ships much more easily with vaccines packed in to small coolers much closer to the size of a suitcase or a camping ice chest.

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“There’s no greater effort that we could undertake right now,” Miller said. “We are really proud to do our piece in what is not just important for United, but what is important for us all in the world.”

Wednesday is expected to be United’s busiest day out of DEN since mid-march, with an estimated 32,000 passengers traveling through their hub alone. Odds are many travelers this holiday season will have thousands of life saving vaccinations in the cargo area beneath their feet as they return home to visit their loved ones.

Dillon Thomas