WATERVLIET, N.Y. – Almost 1,000 New York National Guard Soldiers and Airmen were vaccinated against COVID-19 Dec. 17-20 as part of a Department of Defense (DOD) pilot program at 16 locations worldwide.
Priority for the vaccine went to Army and Air Guard health care providers and personnel assigned to the COVID-19 response task force.
Soldiers and Airmen received the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the Camp Smith Training Site near Peekskill and Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse.
The vaccines were administered to 975 Guard members within 96 hours after being received at New York Army National Guard Medical Command headquarters at the Watervliet Arsenal on Dec. 16.
The Guard members will get a second dose after 21 days.
The Pfizer vaccine provides 95 percent effectiveness against contracting or spreading the coronavirus after its second dose, according to officials with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Getting the vaccine from the manufacturer to service members' arms takes tremendous effort, said Staff Sgt. John Gamalski, the noncommissioned officer in charge at the Camp Smith vaccination site.
The Pfizer vaccine must be transported and stored at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. The vaccine is delivered on dry ice and remains stable for about five days.
"That shipper can't be opened more than two times a day for more than a minute at a time," Gamalski said. "Once it's reconstituted, it is only good for six hours from that point."
The challenge was reconstituting the vaccine while readying medical staff and hundreds of recipients all at once.
"We have to make sure we have seats filled with Soldiers and Airmen ready to go to administer it," he said.
At the same time the first of 17,000 New York National Guard troops were vaccinated, 170,000 doses of the vaccine were provided to health care workers and nursing home residents and staff across New York.
The DOD's limited distribution of 44,000 vaccines arrived at 10 military treatment facilities in the United States, four overseas treatment sites and two National Guard states – New York and Indiana.
The DOD COVID Task Force selected New York for initial distribution based on its population of at least 1,000 priority military personnel and the medical command's available personnel to administer vaccines and monitor vaccine recipients.
Since the vaccine is approved for emergency use by the FDA, it can only be offered voluntarily, said Army National Guard Maj. Keith Casserly, the medcom unit commander.
The New York National Guard has 1,500 people assigned to COVID response duties. These range from drive-through testing to medical supply warehousing to traveler advisory support missions at airports to packing COVID test kits.
The headquarters of the response force, led by Army National Guard Lt. Col. Aaron Lefton, collected rosters of volunteers and arranged for them to receive their vaccines at the two consolidated sites.
For Guard members on duty since the first cluster of the coronavirus in March, the vaccination effort marked a distinct change in the state response.
"Many of us were some of the first service members in the nation on the front lines of the worst of the worst pandemic of the last 100 years," said Maj. Stephen Carson, a physician assistant and medical standards officer with the New York Medical Command.
"For nearly a year, all we could do is fight defense ... now we are again among the first in the nation. Now we have the initiative. Now we are able to take this fight to the enemy," Carson said.
Gamalski said the evidence indicates the vaccine "is safe enough to give to our Soldiers and make sure that they are healthy and protect those around them. ... The more people are allowed to do that, on the military and civilian side, I think will make for a healthier and safer state."
The DOD expects to apply lessons from this initial distribution to the full rollout across the entire military in 2021.
"The medical operation was one of the best operations I have been part of in my entire career," Casserly said.
The DOD encourages all service members to take the vaccine to protect their health, their families and their communities, Casserly said.