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Pfizer support workers 'feel the love'

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Groton — If Pfizer Inc. manages over the next few months to deliver a vaccine to protect the world against COVID-19, plaudits will rain down on scientists and managers at the company's largest worldwide research-and-development campus off Eastern Point, and deservedly so.

Hundreds of scientists have been showing up daily in Groton over the past four months in the midst of the pandemic as Pfizer fast-tracked coronavirus research and more than 150,000 Americans died of a disease that in some parts of the country is still spreading like wildfire. The company's Pearl River site in New York serves as Pfizer's vaccine discovery headquarters, but scientists here are working on developing the hotly anticipated cure to COVID-19 by working on safety and efficacy studies, dealing with regulatory hurdles, working on the proper formulation and scaling up production of the 100 million doses that the government initially will purchase if the new drug works.

But for all the scores of scientist on site every day, says the company, an equally impressive number of support personnel are likewise there risking their health doing essential work such as cleaning, cooking and delivery. And they've had to figure out new ways to operate to reduce the likelihood of infecting others.

"They are the unsung heroes," said Pfizer spokeswoman Jess Smith in a conference call July 16.

Brian Unwin, director of dining services at the Groton site for the past eight years, said his personnel had been bringing food to about 600 people every day at 17 to 18 locations, serving both breakfast and lunch with a staff of 21. In recent weeks, though, things have changed and box lunches are now available for pickup.

Previously, he said, the campus featured a dining center where scientists would congregate. But in the era of social distancing, dining at close quarters became impossible. Even dining service personnel have had to change their way of doing business, as those who once cooked "elbow to elbow" now have to prep for meals wearing masks at least six feet apart, he said.

"There's a certain energy you feel when you're on site," he said, "because you know everyone is working hard 12 to 14 hours a day so everyone on this site is safe and sound."

Pfizer said about 800 people are working regularly on site, up from the 600 to 700 that site leader John Burkhardt reported on campus in May. At the time, he said about 200 support personnel were working on campus, and scientists were interacting in "tribes" to reduce exposure to others.

Helping to provide workers peace of mind, manager of janitorial services Carmen Benitez-Rodriguez said her team of 43 full-time employees has been disinfecting buildings more often and trying to keep up with the increasing demand for hand sanitizers. At the beginning, she worked on ensuring that all dining tables and chairs were at least six feet apart as well.

"We've been adjusted," said Benitez-Rodriguez, who has been with the company for 25 years. "We used to take breaks together and give hugs in the hallways. ... It's kind of unusual (that we can't do that anymore) because it's a very tight community." 

Some working from home

Ed Madera, a nearly 30-year Pfizer employee and currently import/export team lead, said his group has been working hard on national and international shipments of COVID-related research material, including the virus itself.

"Our work is critical to the successful implementation of our science," he said.

Madera noted that the shipment of such material is heavily regulated, and lack of documentation can delay the flow of cargo around the world. Among the agencies he deals with are U.S. Customs and Immigration Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Drug Administration, he added.

Madera has been working largely from home because of a medical condition that could make him at risk should he be exposed to the novel coronavirus.

"I like working from home," he said. "I definitely appreciate Pfizer having that flexibility for having me work from home. Without that, I don't know what I would do."

As with many people these days, COVID-19 has become a personal issue for Benitez-Rodriguez, who reports that the sister of a good friend recently died of the disease.

"She couldn't say goodbye to her sister," Benitez-Rodriguez said. "I wish we had a vaccine so we could save some more lives."

Vaccine on the fast track

Pfizer and its partner BioNTech are at the forefront of COVID-19 vaccine research that could lead to the approval of an effective drug by the end of the year. The federal government last month signed a $1.95 billion agreement with Pfizer that would guarantee its purchase of millions of vaccine doses once final testing shows the company's remedy is safe and effective. Early studies indicated the vaccine, after two doses, elicited T-cell and antibody response in humans apparently strong enough to fight off the disease.

Pfizer already has cut about half a year off the vaccine-approval process because of fast-tracking efforts by the FDA. The eased regulations and government support are part of the Trump administration's Project Warp Speed effort to deliver by January up to 300 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines currently being developed by several different companies.

Those who work on the front lines at Pfizer and have had a chance to converse with scientists about their work are among those cheering on the development of a vaccine that will save lives and allow for life to return to the way it was before the pandemic. The support workers who keep everything humming behind the scenes, in turn, say they are grateful that the scientists are showing their appreciation for them as well.

"We feel the love," Benitez-Rodriguez said. "We feel very included."

l.howard@theday.com

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