RICHMOND, Va. – The Virginia National Guard is continuing COVID-19 response missions across Virginia with task forces supporting vaccine clinics and providing mobile vaccine teams to help administer shots.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency opened a community vaccination clinic March 29 at the Military Circle Mall in Norfolk, with Brig. Gen. James Ring, the VNG director of the joint staff, serving as the dual-status commander. While active-duty Sailors assigned to the Portsmouth Naval Medical Command and Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story are providing the staffing for the main clinic, VNG mobile vaccination teams have helped vaccinate the surrounding community during “spoke missions,” taking vaccination shots on the road to underserved communities in Hampton Roads.
“The VNG welcomes the opportunity to team with our federal, state and local partners in COVID-19 response,” said Ring. “We’re glad to be part of the national and commonwealth effort to mitigate the effects of this global pandemic in our communities. The support of FEMA has enabled Virginia to speed the vaccine response to our local communities.”
One of VNG’s mobile vaccination team leaders, 2nd Lt. Kyle Rash, said the Guard is filling a void between small, private clinics that can vaccinate up to 150 people a day and large clinic hubs like the FEMA site at Military Circle Mall, which can vaccinate thousands daily.
“The need for these medium-size satellite clinics existed and is something that falls in line with the capabilities that our mobile vaccination teams can provide,” explained Rash. “For these, FEMA provides the overall operational oversight and coordination with the local communities and VNG personnel provide a portion of the manpower that is required to make the operation happen, and at the end of the day the community is better served for it.”
These medium-sized mobile clinics are targeting some of Hampton Roads’ underserved communities, providing vaccination shots to some of the area’s most vulnerable citizens. Sites for these clinics include churches and Norfolk-area public schools.
“Many of the members of the audience we are able to reach out to may be of the high risk or vulnerable category and may not have as many opportunities to receive a vaccination or support,” said Rash. “Knowing that we are making a difference in these communities is a very rewarding aspect of the missions, and this is one of the components of the mission that keeps the teams' morale high and steady as we continue to travel across the state conducting these operations.”
“Being able to help the underserved is always a joy and also brings joy to the people who come to the site for their vaccinations,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew Collier, one of the mobile vaccination team members. “No better job.”
VNG teams supported the spoke clinics throughout April and will continue into June. Most of the missions have resulted in 100 to 150 shots facilitated, though the teams are capable of providing more than double that number at each site.
“The satellite clinics are realistically outfitted to conduct a rough maximum throughput of about 400 a day, but we have not met that yet,” said Rash. “If we do exceed that number, FEMA is often able to work out solutions so that they are not turning anyone away.”
For Rash, it’s the impact on the community that makes his team’s efforts worth it.
“It is rewarding to see the impact and know that we are able to better protect our neighbors and communities against the ever-changing pandemic,“ Rash said. “Some of these community members are high-risk and vulnerable and may work some of the most essential jobs in the community but have limited access to receive the vaccine.”
In Nottoway County, VNG Soldiers and Airmen assigned to another COVID-19 support team are also adapting to new missions. After weeks of providing vaccination and wraparound logistics and administrative support for a clinic opened in April by the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management in Blackstone, those Soldiers and Airmen are now taking vaccinations to schools and other smaller sites to help reach more citizens.
“The VNG remains appreciative of the outstanding work of our military service members and the support of their civilian employers during this period of prolonged emergency response operations,” said Ring.
As of May 13, VNG COVID-19 mobile vaccination teams had administered nearly 45,000 shots across Virginia. VNG administrative and logistics support at community clinics has also facilitated more than 437,000 vaccinations.
In addition to the vaccine support, VNG Soldiers and Airmen collected more than 179,000 COVID-19 test samples, tested the fit of thousands of N95 respirator masks and trained others on proper mask fit. From April through July 2020, the Guard helped food banks distribute nearly 1,350,000 pounds of food.