MEDFORD, Ore. – Volunteer Airmen from the Oregon National Guard's 173rd Fighter Wing, operating on state active duty as part of Task Force Guardian, are supporting COVID-19 vaccination clinics in Southern Oregon.
Team Kingsley personnel are performing three missions: administering vaccine to high-risk populations and essential workers, controlling traffic at the clinics, and managing all the records that go along with a large-scale medical operation.
These volunteers include the chief nurse and three enlisted medics from the 173rd Medical Group who are part of the team administering vaccines. They began their deployment in Medford, where they inoculated 8,000 Oregonians in a drive-thru setting in three days. The team has since moved to Grants Pass.
"It's an emotional time," said Lt. Col. Beth Boschee, an emergency room nurse in her civilian job and the officer in charge of medical operations for the task force. "The people coming in to get the shots are happy, cheering, and they're also sharing stories of deaths in their families from COVID-19."
Those vaccinated have ranged from age 16 to 90 and included teachers, first responders and the elderly with underlying conditions. One of the happiest moments, Boschee said, was when her team sang "happy birthday" to an 82-year-old man Jan. 24 as he received his first COVID-19 shot.
Boschee and the 173rd medics help make up the larger, 33-member Task Force Guardian, which has 12 Team Kingsley members. The rest of the task force is staffed from the 142nd Wing out of Portland.
In addition to the medical operations team, four Team Kingsley personnel are performing administrative management duties under the leadership of Maj. Robin Bautista, 173rd Medical Group. Another four are working on a traffic control team led by Senior Master Sgt. John Wyman, 270th Air Traffic Control Squadron.
Bautista's team is tracking vaccine data, including lot numbers and the names of recipients. He said it was a steep learning curve on the first day. Still, the operation is now running so smoothly that the civilian counterparts hope the team will come back to help administer second doses.
"I didn't know what this was going to entail, but my training really helped," said Bautista. "It's been organization of people and resources, and knowing who to talk to – I'm an optometrist in my civilian job, so knowing how to deal with medical professionals comes to bear in a situation like this. Everyone is here for the right reasons. This is a real step towards making a better world."
Wyman's team has been advising and consulting on traffic plans at clinic locations, directing traffic, and monitoring choke points. The goal, he explained, was to make sure people could receive the vaccine as quickly and safely as possible. "This has been a super positive experience; morale is high," said Wyman. "It's snowed, it's rained, but everyone from a brand new Airman to a lieutenant colonel raised their hand to continue volunteering if they need us."
While ensuring lines stay socially distanced and moving, Wyman described a situation where one of his team members assisted an elderly gentleman with a walker inside the clinic; the gentleman cried, overwhelmed by the help he received. "People look to us to be experts. We wear the uniform and that really means something. We've received a lot of love from county leaders, and they told us they hope we can come back to help again."
Some of the Team Kingsley members in Grants Pass will be forward-deploying to Deschutes and Multnomah Counties, continuing their current missions, and another 173rd member will be joining them. Their activation lengths are varying between seven and 60 days.
"It's great to see our Airmen put their training to use to help our state," said Lt. Col. Mike Balzotti, the 173rd's crisis action team manager. "We can really make a difference – this is why we're in the Guard. And it's an interesting dynamic to mix with other Oregon Guardsmen and get to see the big picture."