ARLINGTON, Va. – Many National Guard members who supported COVID-19 response efforts in 2020 spent much of the year conducting tests, sanitizing facilities, providing logistical support and delivering meals and personal protective equipment.
Now, the Guard can add another mission to a fight that is approaching the one-year mark: supporting vaccinations.
As early as mid-December, select Guard units were preparing to support local health officials by collecting, securing, transporting and –when requested – administering COVID-19 vaccinations.
For some with the West Virginia National Guard, that meant participating in drills to facilitate a smooth rollout of the vaccinations that initially targeted health care personnel, first responders and select government agency personnel.
“It is imperative for us to complete our planning and to fully rehearse now so we can get the vaccine out to our Phase One recipients as quickly and efficiently as possible,” said Army Lt. Col. Walter “Wally” Hatfield, the director of operations for the West Virginia National Guard.
Once the vaccines were available, many Guard medical elements nationwide sprang into action.
In New Hampshire, just days before the New Year, 13 vaccination sites opened – with Guard members conducting traffic control, logistical support, and vaccine administration missions.
Efficiency was key.
“We’ve been able to rotate people through very regularly, very easily,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jennifer Boisvert, with the New Hampshire Army National Guard and a noncommissioned officer in charge at one of the sites. “From the time you drive in, to the time you get your vaccination, you’re probably only here for about 20 minutes.”
The strong demand for the vaccine translated into long hours for Guard members.
“We get an hour to prepare before our shift starts, then it’s pretty steady until the end of the day,” said Tech. Sgt. Matthew Prugger, an aerospace medic with the New Hampshire Air National Guard’s 157th Air Refueling Wing.
At the start of the pandemic, Prugger, who worked as the noncommissioned officer in charge of two testing sites, said the work New Hampshire Guard members did help set the stage for businesses to reopen.
But the next challenge in combating COVID-19 is not lost on him.
“Vaccinating is a huge mission in itself,” said Prugger, explaining his site was providing 160 to 185 vaccines a day. “Hopefully, we are able to make a dent and the world can go back to some form of normalcy.”
As of Jan. 14, 16 states and territories – Arizona, California, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee – are using Guard Soldiers and Airmen to administer COVID-19 vaccines to public health workers, nursing staff and residents, and other high-risk people.
Under Department of Defense guidance, some Guard members have elected to receive the vaccination, too.
According to Staff Sgt. John Gamalski, a health care specialist with the New York Army National Guard, getting the vaccine from the manufacturer to the patient’s arm is a delicate process.
Much of that, he said, involves the proper packaging and storage of a thermal shipper that contains the sensitive cargo.
“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.”
That brief window to administer the vaccine, he said, made it imperative that all of the recipients – in this case, Guard members – were ready.
“We have to make sure we have seats filled with Soldiers and Airmen ready to go to administer it,” Gamalski explained.
For Army Maj. Stephen Carson, a physician assistant and medical standards officer with the New York Army National Guard, vaccinating Guard members will be a game-changer.
“Many of us were some of the first service members in the nation on the front lines of the worst pandemic of the last 100 years, for nearly a year. All we could do is (play) defense,” said Carson. “Now, we are able to take this fight to the enemy.”