MONTGOMERY, Ala. – In a National Guard armory, more than 100 service members from all corners of the state gathered with public health officials for the final steps in an effort that has been months in the making – bringing COVID-19 vaccines to those who need them.
"This is something we are really excited about and we are so thankful for all of you volunteering to help get this vaccine out to the people who need us most," said Jamey Durham, the Alabama Department of Public Health's statewide coordinator.
On March 16, ADPH administrators convened with the full roster of Alabama Guardsmen who had signed up to administer the lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine in rural Alabama communities in at least 24 counties with limited access to medical facilities.
A morning filled with briefings from state medical professionals began what will be a weeklong refresher course on common procedures and best practices.
All team members administering vaccines are already military medical professionals, but the training will ensure all mobile vaccination team members are also certified according to both state and federal Public Health Department and HIPAA standards.
The operation's medical planner, Maj. Richard Bolt, said he assembled more than 100 Soldiers and Airmen from almost every major command unit in the Alabama National Guard. Every one of them volunteered for the mission.
Those Guard members have been split into two teams that include doctors, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, medics and administrative personnel, as well as a team of planners and logisticians in Montgomery for multi-agency coordination. The teams will transport, set up, take down and move the free, voluntary vaccination clinics in publicly accessible areas of Alabama's less-populated counties.
"Everyone who's here is here because they believe in what we're doing," Bolt said. "This is what the Guard is all about. When there's a crisis, we drop what we're doing and step up to help our neighbors get back to a sense of normalcy. It's our hope this mission and this vaccine will do that just like we do after hurricanes and tornadoes and floods."
Durham said the state has been planning to use the Guard for this but has needed vaccine supply to get to a sufficient level.
"Other states have used the Guard to set up sites people can travel to or have sent mobile vaccination teams out to set up at a location for a few days," Bolt said. "We're attempting to vaccinate up to 1,170 Alabama residents in 24 counties in 12 days, then cycle back for the second dosage on the same timescale."
If the mission is successful, Bolt said it might be expanded.
Many of the team members who will be drawing and administering the vaccines are engaged in civilian medical practices full-time as well as in their military occupations, but they volunteered to meet the needs of the public in a new way.
"Our military medical personnel train and train and train," he said, "but there are very few opportunities to go out and put that training toward helping the citizens of Alabama. Normally, our emergency response is focused on natural disasters, but this is a historic opportunity for our medical Soldiers and Airmen to do what they signed up to do."
Pfc. Angel Reynolds, a religious affairs specialist who will be performing administrative functions for the vaccination teams, said that fulfilling a desire to serve applies to everyone on this mission – the medical personnel as well as to those, like herself, filling support roles.
"I just graduated from training last year," she said, "and I've been asking about any opportunities I could find to serve outside of the usual drill schedule. This came up and my first thought was about making people feel comfortable and safe by going to these communities and supporting them in ways that they need right now. That's the best feeling ever. I signed up immediately."
Maj. Gen. Jerry Martin, Alabama National Guard assistant adjutant general and lead military officer for the mission, observed the vaccination process during a "dry run" before thanking the teams for their willingness to serve.
Those who come to the vaccination sites will be greeted by multilingual personnel who will guide them through the paperwork and direct them through the vaccination line.
"This is a huge operation," Martin said, "and every one of you – from data entry to the vaccine providers, from the privates to the lieutenant colonels – is vital to making this a success. I firmly believe this will help save the lives of people in our state and I salute you for that. We all do."
The mobile vaccination teams are scheduled to begin operating their first public vaccination site March 23. Dates and locations are being finalized with county agencies.