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Does U.S. Have Enough Dry Ice For COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. needs lots of freezers - medical-grade freezers, ultra-low-temperature freezers, airports with freezers, freezers in trucks - all to get COVID-19 vaccines out to the American public. And for vaccines to get between all those freezers, we also need ice - dry ice, maybe more than we can buy right now. Sarah Gonzalez of our Planet Money podcast has the story.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Is there dry ice near you that you can just show me very quickly?

GIO ESCOBAR: Yes. Oh, yeah. Let me walk.

GONZALEZ: Gio Escobar with Subzero Ice Services in Miami walks out to his warehouse. He's a dry ice distributor. He lifts the lid off a big teal blue bin that's on the floor. A cloud of cold white smoke puffs out. And he sticks his bare hand into it...

(SOUNDBITE OF ICE CRACKLING)

GONZALEZ: ...Into thousands of little pellets of dry ice.

It doesn't burn your hand?

ESCOBAR: Yeah, it does. You see how I'm switching hands?

GONZALEZ: He drops a cube of dry ice in a glass of water, of course, and it bubbles up. But Escobar says dry ice is way more sophisticated.

ESCOBAR: It doesn't melt because that's why its name is dry ice. It's dry. It never goes through liquid phase, only goes through - from solid to gas.

GONZALEZ: What?

ESCOBAR: Yeah. Yes. That's why dry ice - that's the concept of it. And the name for that reaction is sublimation. It sublimates.

GONZALEZ: Dry ice doesn't melt. It sublimates. It, like, disappears. Escobar gets his dry ice from Augusta, Ga. Then he distributes it to hospitals, lab researchers, blood centers, restaurants, freight forwarders. And when the COVID vaccines were announced, Escobar says people who've never wanted dry ice before, people who don't even know about sublimation started calling.

ESCOBAR: We started having calls from big airlines, freight forwarders, DHL, American Airlines, you know, big airlines because they going to move the vaccine. And then we also have a couple calls from big hospital systems - will you be able to cover our needs on dry ice? Yeah, as far as you let me know what you're going to need. Oh, no. We don't know. OK. When you know, you call me. I will figure it out.

GONZALEZ: So they didn't tell you how much they need or when they want it?

ESCOBAR: They don't know. They don't know.

GONZALEZ: So you have no idea how much they're going to want from you?

ESCOBAR: No.

GONZALEZ: And how do you know if you'll have enough ice for them?

ESCOBAR: Having a kind of panic attack lately because I don't know.

GONZALEZ: Escobar says he can't just buy a bunch of dry ice now and stock up on it and store it because, remember, it's sublimates. It disappears. And it's not like you can just keep dry ice in a normal freezer. A normal freezer isn't cold enough.

Are you worried?

ESCOBAR: Yeah, I am.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, you look worried.

ESCOBAR: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah (laughter). If you have limited quantities, who are you going to provide with - the vaccine? Are you going to provide your everyday customers, been with you for many years? You know, it's complicated.

GONZALEZ: Escobar says he'd probably turn away restaurants and bars first, but after that, it gets trickier to choose.

ESCOBAR: Because, you know, again, the people who buy dry ice from us doesn't buy dry ice for fun. You know, there is research centers. There is food for the elderly. You know, there's medicine that goes to South America or goes to Europe that needs to be, you know, kept in dry ice. So it's not an easy decision to take, you know.

GONZALEZ: The people who manufacture dry ice in Georgia, they've told Escobar that they're preparing and planning and doing everything they can to ramp up. But this is a lot more dry ice than normal. And machines break, and people are already worried about dry ice shortages. Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.