Tuesday was the final day for the last active-duty troops tasked with assisting the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s COVID-19 mass vaccination sites — but the National Guard’s efforts continue.
At the mission’s peak, around 5,150 active-duty troops from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force were working at the FEMA vaccination centers, according to a press release from U.S. Army North. The troops administered approximately 5 million vaccines since Feb. 4, when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin first authorized active-duty vaccination support for civilian authorities.
Before they turned off the lights Tuesday, 45 Air Force personnel at a site in Newark, New Jersey, were all that remained amid a nationwide drop in demand for the vaccine.
Two Army leaders who ran one of the FEMA sites reflected on their experiences in a Wednesday media roundtable.
Lt. Col. Andrew Olson and Command Sgt. Maj. Nathaniel Atkinson Jr. of the 299th Brigade Engineer Battalion out of Fort Carson, Colorado, spent two months running a mass vaccination site in Los Angeles, California, earlier this year.
Olson, the battalion’s commander, first learned of the mission in a text message from his commander.
“Having been in the Army for 20 years now, [it was] not extremely surprising — you come to expect the unexpected,” he said.
He and Atkinson quickly identified a force of volunteers — many of whom were from Los Angeles — to go and staff the site alongside FEMA and California National Guard troops.
Once they were there and operating, the people receiving vaccinations sustained the soldiers even though running the site was “a little bit like Groundhog Day,” as Olson put it.
Members of the public were “so appreciative of what [we were] doing,” said Atkinson. “It was overwhelming.”
Among their customers? Actors Terry Crews and Danny DeVito, according to the sergeant major.
“We quickly realized this was so wonderful [and] such a unique chance to serve the American people directly,” said Olson, whose site administered 334,018 vaccinations before transferring to local control in April. “We stand ready to answer the nation’s call whether…here in the homeland or whether that’s abroad.”
Guardsmen go on
The mission continues for the National Guard, though. Many former federal mass vaccination sites have transitioned to state or local control, and those authorities are by-and-large requesting continued support from the Guard.
As of Tuesday morning, there were “more than 2,190 National Guard personnel…supporting their states by actually vaccinating members of the civilian population…[and] 10,220 members of the National Guard members…providing administrative or logistical support to vaccination efforts,” according to Wayne Hall, a spokesperson for the National Guard Bureau.
Approximately 12,410 Guard troops were on duty across 45 of the nation’s states and territories, Hall said.
Currently, Guard troops continuing to administer and support vaccination sites are on federally-funded Title 32 orders that offer equal pay and benefits to those received by active-duty troops. That isn’t the case with other types of orders, such as state active duty.
The Title 32 funding authorization will expire on September 30, unless President Joe Biden’s administration extends it further.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army. He focuses on investigations, personnel concerns and military justice. Davis, also a Guard veteran, was a finalist in the 2023 Livingston Awards for his work with The Texas Tribune investigating the National Guard's border missions. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill.