Some were volunteers and some were pulled from their civilian jobs to run the site, but for the foreseeable future, they’ll be working for the Defense Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency push to get hundreds of thousands inoculated every day.
“They told me I could be here until September, so we’ll see,” said Senior Airman Samantha Campos, an unmanned aerial vehicle crew chief, who staffs a drive-up vaccine lane.
At this site, set up in an outdoor parking lot at California State University, Los Angeles, Angelenos with appointments drive up, check in, get their shot and then spend at least 15 minutes in their car, in case of an adverse reaction, or just to shake off their nerves.
“One lady came in and she was very afraid of needles, so I had her roll her passenger-side window down, and I just asked her about what color her shoes were, and she was like, ‘Oh, I’m done already,’ " Campos told reporters.
In just over a week up and running, there haven’t been any medical emergencies, though psychologically, the unknown has been ever-present.
“Luckily for us, all of our medical incidents have really been anxiety-based,” said Army 2nd Lt. Taylor Nehlig, a registered nurse at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, who was vaccinated in mid-December and volunteered to come out to California.
Supervising six drive-up lanes, Nehlig said she’s answered a lot of questions for patients, or helped them through breathing exercises to calm their fears, assuring them that the site is full of emergency medical technicians, medics and nurses to respond if anything goes wrong.
“I feel like I’ve seen all three sides of COVID,” she said. “I’ve seen people at their most fearful, when they’re getting swabbed … and then, the past eight or nine months I’ve been actually working on a COVID floor, so I’ve seen people at their weakest. And now we come here and see people in their most joyful moments, of getting the vaccine and finally, a breath of relief.”
It’s been especially personal for some of the Guardsmen, most of whom are based in Southern California.
“We’ve had a few service members who were able to vaccinate their own family, which was really special,” she said.
Since opening in mid-February, the staff of over 200 have been ironing out the kinks not only of their operation, but of their daily routines.
They’re settling into six- and seven-hour shifts, Nehlig said, with FEMA staff bringing in meals. The center gives its first doses at 8:45 a.m. and continues to check people in until 7 p.m.
“At the beginning, yes, it kind of started rough,” Sgt. Andrew Reyes, an Army National Guardsman, told Military Times, but after a few days they had figured out a workflow.
The Los Angeles site is the first of 11 announced sites so far, either online or in the works in New York, Texas and Florida.
FEMA’s original request to the Pentagon proposed up to 100 of these sites, able to administer either 3,000 or 6,000 doses a day.
At the same time, DoD is workings it way through its own vaccine plan, having administered more than a million vaccines, roughly half of those to service members.
Members of the Joint Staff told lawmakers during a hearing Feb. 17 that, mirroring the U.S. population, about a third of troops were opting not to get inoculated, which will be voluntary while the Food and Drug Administration completes further trials.
To encourage troops to take it, individual leaders, the services and the defense secretary have launched education campaigns.
“I mean, I recommend everybody get vaccinated,” Reyes, who got his first dose Feb. 15, told Military Times. “I want to stop wearing these masks and see everyone smiling again.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT