RICHMOND, Va. –
Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen continue to provide support to the Virginia Department of Health and Virginia Department of Emergency Management as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. VNG mobile vaccination support teams continue to operate across the commonwealth, while the task force assigned to provide logistics and administrative support to Community Vaccination Clinics has concluded their mission.
The VNG task force providing mobile vaccination support added new members from the outgoing CVC support task force, and is continuing to adapt to an ever-changing mission as VNG support of COVID-19 response operations enters July, 15 months after initially starting with testing support in April 2020.
“After transitioning from COVID testing to vaccinations, the strike teams were primarily utilized at large community testing events,” said Lt. Col. Health Phillips, commander of the task force providing mobile vaccination support. “Now, as the total vaccinated population numbers have reached 40 to 60%, we are focusing on mobile sites, for individuals who could not make it to the vaccination PODs in the higher population areas, and working with the adolescent population 12 to 18 years old at high schools.”
In addition to mobile clinics and providing vaccinations at local schools, the strike teams have also worked aboard international seagoing vessels in Hampton Roads, which has provided its own unique challenges and rewards, according to 1st Lt. Kyle Rash, a mobile vaccine team officer in charge.
“The International interface of this mission is strikingly different than your normal vaccination support mission. The pandemic response mission is to support the needs of the community, and this just touches on a much broader community while also supporting the immediate community of the port workers and Norfolk region,” said Rash. “For example, the team vaccinated Seafarers aboard the Tokyo Spirit, a Japanese vessel sailed by a Chinese crew delivering soy beans from Brazil to a Norfolk-based processing plant that distributes product nationally. Providing the vaccinations to these Seafarers supports not only the immediate local community but the international workers that keep the global logistic supply chain moving throughout the continuing pandemic."
Staff Sgt. Scott Andrews, the noncommissioned officer in charge for Rash’s vaccine team, said the port mission required more flexibility than some of their previous vaccine missions.
"A typical vaccination mission has a very structured schedule, planned out in advance with a lot of structure that is not as flexible for changes,” said Andrews. “These port missions are fluid and rapidly changing by the moment as dock schedules change, a few ships that we have been able to vaccinate had about an hours notice to plan and execute, while others were planned in place but canceled with the same notice due to unexpected port departures.”
Despite the challenges, Andrews said the port missions have been especially rewarding.
“The gratitude and thankfulness from the ship’s crew in that someone is willing to step up and start vaccinating them makes this worth it,” said Andrews. “Some of them have been confined to their ship since before the pandemic began, spending almost two full years on the water at work. They have been more grateful and appreciative than your average person that the team members have vaccinated from the community. Supporting the ships is truly a humbling opportunity that makes one thankful for what we have and what we can provide to others.”
As of June 26, 2021, VNG mobile teams have vaccinated about 60,000 individuals. Phillips said it has been an unprecedented team effort to make it happen.
“From a commander's perspective, the most remarkable thing I have seen during this mission are the Soldiers and Airmen I command, Phillips said. “They’re a group of volunteers who were quickly assembled from multiple units, with diverse sets of experience and skillsets. Their ability to integrate and form a cohesive and successful team has been remarkable. We did not begin this mission as a pre-established unit, but these soldiers and airmen have built a successful team.”
While mobile vaccinations continue, another aspect of COVID-19 response support has concluded. The VNG task force providing logistics and administrative support to CVCs concluded their mission in June, but not before helping facilitate more than 460,000 vaccinations across Virginia in support of VND and VDEM.
“The organization, support and depth of knowledge that reside within VDEM and VDH has been exciting to see and be a part of,” said Lt. Col. Juanita Rohler, who commanded the CVC support task force. “Multiple agencies have come together to support local health districts and their vaccination efforts across the state. The inclusion, integration and execution derived from a holistic approach was accepted by all participating agencies. In the Army we live by the ‘one-team, one-fight’ adage and it has been very rewarding to see the same mentality in the state vaccination effort as well.”
Through the months of hard work helping keep Virginians safe, Phillips said his troops haven’t forgotten their other responsibilities as Soldiers and Airmen.
“Throughout our response the Soldiers and Airmen of the Task Force have also worked to maintain their individual training and readiness,” explained Phillips. “Upon the completion of this mission, a large portion of the service members on the TF have pending deployments. Maintaining their training and qualifications has been an important aspect of our operations, and will facilitate the transition to follow on missions.”
In addition to the vaccine support, VNG Soldiers and Airman have conducted more than 179,000 COVID-19 test sample collections, and have conducted thousands of N95 respirator mask fit testings and trainings. Missions from April though July 2020 included providing support to food banks across the state, helping distribute nearly 1,350,000 pounds of food. VNG personnel also provided more than 51,000 hours in planning augmentation to VDEM.
Localities looking for testing, training or vaccination support should contact their local emergency manager.