Biden in Michigan: 'We’re going to beat this'

Portage — President Joe Biden toured the Pfizer campus here Friday, thanked workers manufacturing the COVID-19 vaccine and stressed the importance of accelerating its production and distribution as the nation approaches 500,000 dead from the virus.

“I can’t give you a date when this crisis will end. But I can tell you we're doing everything possible to have that day come sooner rather than later,” Biden said in remarks after Friday's plant tour.

“All of you here are doing some of the most important work in this facility, right here, that can be done.”

President Joe Biden speaks after a tour of a Pfizer manufacturing site, Friday in Portage.

Pfizer had supplied 40 million doses to the U.S. government through Wednesday, the company said, with more on the way, despite severe winter storms this week slowing delivery for three days across the country.

“Getting the vaccine and having it available is not the same as putting into someone’s arm," Biden said, noting his administration's efforts to boost the number of vaccinators and vaccination sites across the nation. 

“I believe we will be approaching normalcy by the end of the year. God willing, this Christmas will be different than the last. But I can’t make that commitment to you.”

Biden relayed the story of a man he did not name who approached him at the plant Friday to explain his father-in-law was dying of COVID. Biden said he offered to call the father-in-law but was told he couldn't take the call.  

"You've seen the devastation of this virus on your family, your community, but you're stepping up. You're saving lives here — the lives of your loved ones, your neighbors, your fellow Americans," the president said. 

"You are showing how this town, this state, this country takes care of our own. Leaves nobody behind. We can do anything when we do it together," he added. 

"It's not gonna be easy here to the end. But we're gonna beat this. We're gonna beat this."

Friday's visit was Biden's first to Michigan as president, having last been in the state shortly before the Nov. 3 election. 

The Portage site was established in 1948, and the 1,300-acre facility is the largest manufacturing site in Pfizer’s network, a spokesman said, noting the site is the sole U.S. finishing plant making Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.

The campus employs approximately 2,800 people and has employees working in three shifts, without stopping the production lines for breaks or holidays, so the operation runs continuously.

Wearing a navy blue cloth mask, Biden on Friday entered a vast warehouse known as the "Freezer Farm," where 350 ultra-cold freezers each contained 360,000 doses of vaccines at negative 60 degrees Celsius, said Amy Rose, a Pfizer’s spokesperson.

Biden, joined by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, listened on the tour as Pfizer staff filled up one of the freezers, then moved on to a second stop where vaccines were being put into large boxes, together with dry ice.

Workers at the Pfizer facility were producing, labeling, packaging, freezing and shipping the company's vaccine. Engineers at the plant also supported the invention and design of the ultra-cold vaccine thermal shipper that has enabled the transport of millions of doses of vaccine across the country. 

Following the tour, Biden spoke for about 25 minutes inside the facility in front of silver vaccine equipment featuring Pfizer's logo. 

“This is a case of life and death,” Biden said of the beginning of the address. “I want the American people to understand the extraordinary, extraordinary work that’s being done."

Speaking near a mural that read “Science will win,” the president stressed the safety of Pfizer’s vaccine. It takes more time to do the safety checks on the vaccines than it does to make them, Biden said.

“The vaccines are safe,” he said. “Please, for yourself, for your family, for your community, this country, take the vaccine when it’s your turn and available. That’s how we beat this pandemic."

Biden also urged Congress to adopt his $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan that includes $20 billion to vaccinate the nation, $290 billion to extend unemployment insurance and $50 billion in small businesses aid.

"My hope is that Republicans in Congress listen to their constituents. According to the polls, there is overwhelming bipartisan support," he said. 

Whitmerand Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, were among about 50 people in crowd for the speech. Most in the crowd were members of the media. State Sen. Sean McCann, D-Kalamazoo; and state Reps. Christine Morse, D-Texas Township, and Julie Rogers, D-Kalamazoo, were at the facility for Biden's visit. 

“We should all be proud as Michiganders that this is happening in our state,” Peters told reporters after the event. “We are playing a key role in getting through this pandemic. As this production continues to ramp up, clearly the end is in sight.”

Peters highlighted the use of the 1950s-era Defense Production Act to overcome “bottlenecks” and bring in new equipment, including some on display at Pfizer. The law lets the government nationalize commercial production in emergency situations.

Going forward, the “holistic challenge is not just producing the vaccine but also making sure it gets into the arms of as many people as possible in the shortest period of time,” Peters said.

Before he introduced Biden, Bourla said the president had tasked his company with finding additional ways to potentially accelerate even further the delivery of the 300 million doses it is committed to deliver by the end of July. 

"Mr. President, the challenge is accepted and, truly, we try to do our best," Bourla said.

President Joe Biden speaks at Pfizer's manufacturing plant in Portage on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.

By 1:30 p.m., dozens of demonstrators had gathered along Portage Road, the path from the airport to the Pfizer facility. Some were there to support the president while others carried anti-Biden and anti-Whitmer messages, like "China Joe" and "Stop the steal." One demonstrator wore a basket on his head and a Chinese flag as a cape.

"We're here for medical freedom," said protester Steve Lee of Grand Rapids. "We're here for government accountability."

Biden, a Delaware Democrat, announced Friday morning a $2 billion pledge to COVAX, the coronavirus vaccine initiative that aims to distribute vaccine doses to 92 low- and middle-income countries. This is a policy shift from the Trump administration.

Biden told world leaders about the funding on a virtual call with G7 leaders. He promised another $2 billion would be released to the alliance, contingent on contributions from other nations. 

"We must cooperate if we're going to defeat COVID-19 everywhere," Biden told the Munich Security Conference from the White House. 

Winter weather had postponed Biden's trip to Michigan, which was originally scheduled for Thursday. Severe storms also slowed the delivery of 6 million vaccine doses across the country — the result of three days of delayed shipping, the White House said earlier Friday. 

All 50 states have been affected, though some were able to cover the gap by relying on existing inventory, White House senior COVID adviser Andy Slavitt said at a briefing.

Part of the problem is that contract workers have been snowed in and unable to get to work to package and ship vaccine kits, Slavitt said. Road closures have also held up deliveries at different points, and over 2,000 vaccine sites are located in areas with power outages and unable to receive doses, he added.

Federal officials don't want to ship doses to sites where they can't be kept cold or would potentially expire, he said. 

"The vaccines are sitting safe and sound in our factories and hubs safe and sound, waiting to be shipped out as soon as the weather allows," Slavitt said, adding that the backlogged doses will be delivered in the next week, including Saturday deliveries.

"We expect we will be able to manage both this backlog and the new production coming online next week."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had notified Michigan on Wednesday of shipment delays due to weather conditions of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. State officials urged residents to confirm their appointments prior to traveling and to have patience as providers seek to reschedule any appointments.

Last week, Biden announced that he expects to have enough vaccine — 600 million doses — available to vaccinate every American by the end of July, including 300 million doses from Pfizer.

A banner at the Pfizer plant thanking employees for their service and the vaccine they created for the masses in Portage on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021.

In Michigan, 1.6 million doses of vaccine have been administered and reported to the state health agency, covering nearly 14% of the state population with at least one dose. Roughly 500,000 Michigan residents having received both shots of the two-dose vaccine.

mburke@detroitnews.com

Staff writer Riley Beggin contributed.