Dana Dallas, the Defense Logistics Agency’s cold chain management expert, has been recognized for her expertise many times over her nearly 20 years in the field. Dallas’ inputs and updates to Defense Department joint cold chain management policy were key points in how DLA managed its tasked distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to overseas military and Navy Fleet customers.
DLA Troop Support Corporate Communications talked with Dallas to get more insight on cold chain management and how she became a DOD expert.
Q: Can you describe what cold chain management entails and why it’s so important to the Medical supply chain and vaccines?
A: The “textbook” definition I use … is that cold chain management is the science of preparing medical temperature-sensitive products for shipment utilizing approved systems and procedures. It also includes ensuring required temperatures are maintained throughout the supply chain and validation that those conditions are being met during all phases of distribution until issue or administration. There are four basic components to a successful cold chain management program: Use of validated shipping containers to keep products at proper temperature, inclusion of temperature monitoring devices, rapid movement of products, and key involvement with knowledgeable customers both internal and external.
Without these steps, material can be damaged and/or lose potency or shelf life, all of which can result in lost funds, loss of ability to take care of the sick and wounded, decreases in operations tempo, etc.
Q: This isn’t the first time the process of cold-chain management has been the focus of an article. Why does cold chain management merit attention?
A: To put it simply – and that may be an ironic choice of wording – cold chain management is difficult. For our DOD customer base, especially those that are located overseas or are continually moving, it is even more difficult. What’s more, if it isn’t done correctly, it can ruin critical supplies and negatively affect DOD’s ability to support warfighters, retirees and their families. The COVID-19 vaccine initiative has somewhat thrust cold chain management to the forefront in what is obviously a very public topic, and temperature requirements for the initial vaccines are so unique that it’s brought the importance of cold chain management to a whole new level.
Q: What was your initial role in the vaccine distribution plan DLA was tasked with?
A: There was a lot of discussion as to DOD’s, let alone DLA’s, cold chain capabilities to support these initial frozen vaccines. My role was basically to identify what we could do right away, what we needed to do to get to the stuff we couldn’t do right away, and monitor what and how we’re doing with what we got. So, it’s ongoing.
The other big cold chain discussion that is still going on is the extreme temperature sensitivity of these vaccines. They are by far, as of right now, the most temperature-sensitive vaccines that we have ever attempted to move.
Q: With your experience in cold chain management, I assume you saw some of these challenges coming. So when the task first hit DLA and you were addressed for input, what were your thoughts?
A: I had actually been waiting for the other shoe to drop as soon as the first case in the U.S. was identified. Knowing what I know about vaccine development and how fast I knew they were going to try and get something to market, I knew it was going to be a task that we had never really had to do before. And I knew it was going to be difficult. But I never doubted we were up to the task, and of course it’s an honor to be part of such an important program. It takes a lot of time, with a lot of attention to detail and a very logical approach to logistics, to do it correctly. Planning, not panic.
Q: You were a major author for joint cold chain management policy in 2018-2019. How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted implementation? Did it account for COVID-19 vaccine distribution?
A: Right about the time COVID-19 hit, my special handling counterpart at DLA Distribution and I were supposed to start our “round robin” trip to each of our DLA Distribution sites to formally roll out and train employees on all of our new packaging protocols. Unfortunately, that was all put on hold due to travel restrictions. Now we’re knee deep in the vaccine distribution, so that program goal is going to have to wait again until things calm down a bit.
The new COVID-19 vaccines have such a unique set of temperature requirements that no one in the industry was really ready to support them at the start of all of this. Not even the manufacturers. They’ve had to have packaging solutions specifically designed for them, so our new packaging protocols were not directly applicable. I started working with DLA Distribution back in the March or April timeframe on finding a commercial off-the-shelf packaging solution that would support the temperature requirements we needed for the Moderna vaccine, two of which DLA Distribution purchased and we are currently using for domestic and military airlift channels. [DLA] Distribution also ended up partnering with FedEx Custom Critical to utilize their White Glove Services packaging solutions to move the Moderna vaccines overseas, and I had to work with each of them to define and vet their packaging requirements and capabilities. We were able to share this market research with our theater logistics partners around the world who are also having to move the Moderna vaccine through their hubs.
Q: How is handling COVID-19 vaccines like some of Medical’s other responsibilities, like the flu vaccine? How is it different?
A: In many areas, the COVID-19 vaccine is running in line with our flu vaccine model, but there are some operational requirements that cause it to need to be unique in some ways such as processing timelines. The biggest difference at this point is the temperature requirement. They have to stay frozen at minus 20 degrees Celsius. They’re also a bit of a different animal due to the that fact that they’re currently under an Emergency Use Authorization and not fully [Food and Drug Administration] approved. That presents some unique customs challenges in shipping to some overseas locations. The scope of the COVID-19 vaccine is also much smaller than our other cold chain programs as far as volume, but it is harder in many ways due to the cold chain requirements and EUA status.
Q: How did you or the team adjust to meet the harder and more unique needs?
A: The biggest pieces of this, to this point, were obtaining the minus 20 degree Celsius packaging options needed, finding a way to conduct the minimum amount of training required – virtually and in a tight timeframe, and vetting some new transit lanes with our carrier partner. We have also been working with our Army and Navy Reserve leadership on base to leverage DLA Joint Reserve manpower to supplement our team and get a little more personnel power behind the challenges.
Q: How does one get into cold chain management? What kind of education or experience leads to a field like this?
A: After I graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in biology with emphasis in microbiology and pre-med, I served as a Medical Service Corp officer specializing in medical logistics for five years. My initial position with DLA Troop Support had me working with the National Mail Order Pharmacy, and that is when I started to transition more into the technical and quality side of things. One of the members of our team was starting up really our first cold chain program, and I started learning everything I could about packaging, vaccines, pharmaceutical temperature requirements, Food and Drug Administration guidelines, and other regulatory groups. From there, I changed positions to become a packaging analyst and I’ve been growing the program ever since.
I also try to attend as many industry cold chain-, packaging- and transportation-focused conferences and workshops as I can to continue to learn. I’ve even had multiple opportunities to be a speaker, workshop leader and discussion group proctor for those same audiences. The civilian industry is always very interested in what DOD is doing for cold chain management and just how vastly different it can be from our civilian partners in some ways.
Q: Looking forward, what does Dana Dallas see for the future of cold chain management?
A: The DLA Headquarters packaging team and I still have the next big target for our program to go “green,” which will also result in improved capabilities in packaging at all temperature ranges. The Headquarters team is doing their due diligence and working internally to best align what we need our definition of “green” to be – packaging that is reusable, biodegradable, made from recycled materials, or all of the above.
For more information on COVID-19 vaccine distribution, see the Department of Health and Human Services website.