National Guard Now Helping with COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution in 26 States

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Ohio Air National Guard Senior Master Sgt. Gregory Sprowls explains the process of receiving and repacking COVID-19 vaccines. (Photo courtesy of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine's office)
Ohio Air National Guard Senior Master Sgt. Gregory Sprowls explains the process of receiving and repacking COVID-19 vaccines. (Photo courtesy of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine's office)

In Ohio and West Virginia, National Guard members broke down the first shipments of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine into smaller packages for transportation to vaccination sites.

In Oklahoma, Guard members, accompanied by state Highway Patrol escorts, drove the vaccine to points where it could be administered to the first recipients.

The National Guard provided assistance Monday for the historic first U.S. COVID-19 vaccinations in a total of 26 states, at the direction of their governors, Guard officials said.

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In Ohio, about 30 Guard members were involved in repackaging the Pfizer vaccine, which must be kept in dry ice at super-cold temperatures of more than minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit to be effective, said Army Maj. Gen. John Harris, the Ohio adjutant general.

It's a two-minute drill to get the vaccine from the larger containers into smaller packages for distribution, but there is an element of risk involved, Harris said in a conference call with reporters.

"There are vulnerabilities, so [Guard members] have to wear specialized [personal protective equipment]," he said, adding that putting the Guard members "even for a short period in that ultra-cold space puts them at risk."

And, he noted, the ultra-cold containers are slippery and easy to mishandle

"The risk of dropping or damaging those vials as a result of those unusual conditions is very real," Harris said.

In West Virginia, Guard members are so far involved only in repackaging the vaccine, said Army Brig. Gen. Murray E. "Gene" Holt, that state's assistant adjutant general.

Vaccine distribution is particularly critical in West Virginia, according to Holt.

"We are now in a pivotal time in this response. We have the most vulnerable population in this state" because of age and other factors, he said.

In contrast to Ohio and West Virginia, Guard members in Oklahoma were not involved in repackaging but took to the roads to drive the vaccine to vaccination points, said Army Brig. Gen. Cynthia Tinkham, the assistant adjutant general for the Oklahoma National Guard.

She said Oklahoma Guard members were using vehicles provided by the state's Health Department to drive vaccine shipments to distribution points.

Tinkham, Holt and Harris all said they could not predict how much Guard assistance would be needed next year as more companies get Food and Drug Administration approval for their vaccines and distribution ramps up for expanded vaccinations.

Harris said he couldn't guess how much assistance the Ohio Guard would be called on to provide as the mission continues next year to get more than 300 million Americans vaccinated.

"It's one we really haven't gotten our arms around yet," he said. "It's going to be a function of how many companies get approved. ... I can tell you we don't have a sense of what that high end looks like now."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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