As America’s first approved coronavirus vaccine is shipped across the country and frontline workers are getting their first jabs this week, National Guardsmen have been activated to assist with transportation. Military airlifters are standing by to support commercial shipping networks as well.
Governors in 26 states are planning to use the National Guard in some capacity to help with distributing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that the Food and Drug Administration authorized Dec. 11 for emergency use. In Ohio and West Virginia, for example, Guardsmen are working at a state warehouse where they break down large shipments of the vaccine to send to smaller distribution centers. In Oklahoma, the Guard itself is transporting the vaccine from a main hub to satellite sites, the adjutants general of the states told reporters.
“We are a surge force for our state,” Ohio Adjutant General Maj. Gen. John C. Harris Jr. said. “We bring a wide variety of not only capacity to augment the size of the workforce, but also specialized skills within that workforce. … This is exactly what the Guard does.”
The unpacking and breaking down process is a “very scripted routine” that the Guard members have been rehearsing in advance to ensure it is done correctly, Harris said. In West Virginia, the only Guard members who will actually handle vaccine vials are licensed health care providers, said Brig. Gen. Murray E. “Gene” Holt, the state’s adjutant general and commander of Joint Task Force Corona.
Fifty-five initial shipments of the new messenger RNA vaccine have already been distributed across the country through FedEx and UPS aircraft and trucks, with another 95 en route, Army Gen. Gustave F. Perna said at a Dec. 14 briefing. Perna is the chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed, the public-private effort to accelerate coronavirus vaccines and therapeutics.
More shipments will roll out in the coming days, to reach 636 total in the first round. Operation Warp Speed has identified nearly 600 more orders that will go next.
Within the Defense Department, officials last week said 44,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine will be shipped to 13 locations across the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and Germany. Military health care professionals, emergency services, and public safety personnel will be the first to receive the vaccines in a phased rollout, though DOD is not requiring its employees to get the shot.
Once a Moderna-made vaccine receives FDA approval, about 6 million doses will be shipped to 3,285 locations across the country as well.
While UPS and FedEx will lead vaccine transportation, U.S. Transportation Command and Air Mobility Command have prepared to help out.
“USTRANSCOM is prepared to support DOD, (Department of Health and Human Services), and all partners in Operation Warp Speed, to include the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention],” the command said in a release. “USTRANSCOM anticipates a limited role in OWS vaccine distribution, but stands ready to assist in planning and executing any options that may service the transportation and distribution requirements of OWS as needed.”
Air Mobility Command has recently surveyed its aerial ports at various bases to determine their capacity to store and ship the vaccines, which must be kept in extremely cold freezers.
“AMC tasked all [aerial port squadrons] to assess their ability to store and ship COVID vaccines,” AMC spokeswoman Capt. Nicole Ferrara said. “There has been no unit directed to move them at this time, this is just AMC getting ahead for planning purposes. This is a relatively routine mission, as we move vaccines all the time, and we wouldn’t expect this to be much different.”