On Monday — as the first coronavirus vaccines went into arms across America — senior National Guard officials from Ohio, Oklahoma, and West Virginia detailed the critical role their troops are playing in distributing the vaccine in spite of its extreme storage temperature requirements.
“Currently, governors in 26 states and territories are planning to use the National Guard in some capacity for COVID-19 vaccine distribution,” said Nahaku McFadden, National Guard Bureau’s chief of media operations.
“The first doses of the Pfizer vaccine are arriving currently,” said Army Brig. Gen Murray “Gene” Holt, assistant adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard. His state has tapped around 100 troops, including healthcare professionals, to assist with distribution, he explained in Monday’s press conference.
None of the three states participating in the Monday press conference will have troops administering the vaccine, said the Guard officials. Nor will they be escorting the shipments.
The Ohio National Guard’s main role in the distribution process is repackaging large shipments of the Pfizer vaccine at the Ohio Department of Health’s warehouse facility, said Army Maj. Gen. John Harris, the Ohio National Guard’s adjutant general. “Our job will be to take those large Pfizer shipments…[and] break them down in smaller increments,” said Harris. “We’ll have about 30 people here in Ohio working on that.”
The repackaging process is complex, explained Harris.
“It’s a very scripted and very disciplined process for getting it out of those ultra-low temperature coolers,” he said, citing detailed training and “specialized PPE” as a requirement for troops supporting the mission.
West Virginia’s troops will fulfill a similar role, said Holt. “We have 100 [personnel] who will be supporting that,” he explained. “We are only breaking down those [vaccine shipments] that are not going to be direct ship [to healthcare providers].” For any transportation requirements, the troops will utilize rental vehicles rather than military vehicles, said Holt.
Approximately 15 guardsmen in Oklahoma are assisting in repackaging and transporting doses the last mile to health-care providers, according to Army Brig. Gen. Cynthia Tinkham, assistant adjutant general of the Oklahoma National Guard. They will “support [the Oklahoma Department of Health] by safely transporting the vaccine, breaking it up from five pre-positioned sites, and distributing those to the [Okla. Department of Health] satellite sites,” said Tinkham in Monday’s press conference.
The additional duty comes amid an extremely busy year for the National Guard.
“So far in 2020, the National Guard has mobilized more Guard members, for longer, than at any times since World War II,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Devin Robinson, director of public affairs for the Air National Guard, in a statement emailed to Military Times. In addition to the more than 30,000 Guard troops who have mobilized under Title 10 this year, members of the National Guard have spent more than 8.4 million days activated under state and Title 32 authorities for domestic operations in 2020, according to data shared in a media release Friday.
“I’m just humbled by the sacrifices each day that our men and women make when they serve our communities,” said Harris, Ohio’s adjutant general. “It’s just an honor to serve with these dedicated professionals.”
Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.