COLCHESTER, Vt. – Termination of Vermont's COVID-19 state of emergency has led to a shift in priorities for Soldiers and Airmen supporting the state's Strategic National Stockpile.
Distribution of personal protective equipment for emergency medical situations remains a priority for about half of the Guard members posted to Vermont's SNS.
Another major SNS function is large-scale COVID-19 vaccine storage, thanks to substantial refrigeration capacity. Now that most Vermont adults have been vaccinated, the Soldiers and Airmen supporting the SNS are shifting the mission's emphasis.
"There are still major requests for PPE and the vaccine itself; it's still busy but not as much as it was. Although we've done a lot, it's not over yet," said Air Guard Tech. Sgt. Christina McGill, a 4EXO public health specialist with 13 years in service. McGill is the noncommissioned officer in charge of the SNS warehouse PPE section.
"Right now, I supervise 11 people on my team for PPE and it has been awesome," she said. "Everyone from both the Army and Air sides have worked together to make sure the mission came first, and we got everything out to the customers that requested PPE."
Airman 1st Class Abass Kallon is on the PPE team.
"What I primarily do is receive and organize all PPE supplies in the warehouse," Kallon said. "I collect the items, verify condition and prepare them for shipment."
Kallon and fellow Guard members are also supporting vaccine logistics.
"The vaccine section receives orders and they give us the list. We have to prep everything. This means each week we prepare 500 vaccinations, so that's part of the reason we're still here," Kallon said.
They also support National Guard vaccination sites "to distribute PPE to civilians in need or to deliver to a location where the Guard is operating, previously doing COVID-19 testing, now providing vaccinations," Kallon explained.
Kallon said people are still cautious.
"It will be a slow change back," Kallon said. "I don't think people will stop wearing masks, gloves and protective gowns."
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Kallon's section has delivered emergency PPE requests "almost every weekend and a lot of nights, even once in" a snowstorm.
He noted that while the mission is changing, it is far from over.
"There are two parts of the equation: Adults have the vaccination, kids have not, so now the goal is to make sure kids get their vaccinations, that is going to be next," he said. "So until then, we are going to continue this mission in the same way. We have a project coming up to send masks to school districts in preparation for when schools reopen in September."
Kallon has been in the Vermont Air Guard since 2019 after emigrating from Sierra Leone in 2002.
McGill said 40 to 50 Guard members have supported SNS operations.
"Some have come and gone, others like A1C Kallon have been on since Day One," she said. "It was a heavy workload from Monday-Friday with weekends often included. Once the vaccination came out, our workload began to loosen up; it is not as busy as it was."
In another section of Vermont's SNS, COVID test kits are prepared and distributed, according to Air National Guard Master Sgt. Kirk Betzima, noncommissioned officer in charge. "Right now, we have an effort to supply COVID-19 test kits to summer camps in the state."
Since the pandemic started, Betzima said his group has shipped "just shy of 198,000 test kits. We put together 140,000 of them here at the SNS. Now the test kit distribution mission has eased up, replaced by vaccine distribution."
Priorities shifted to support vaccine clinics by getting the word out to businesses near the pop-up sites so employees could get vaccinated.
"We basically used the internet to locate businesses near vaccination sites," Betzima said. "From there, we would call the company and let them know of the clinic's location, times and dates so that information could be passed on to employees."
The project began May 22, with 14 Guard members researching business locations and making calls.
"Businesses we called were surprised to hear from us, in a good way," Betzima said. "They were all very receptive to the information we were offering on the vaccination sites."