David Cheng, director of inpatient pharmacy, holds the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center in Los Angeles, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020

David Cheng, director of inpatient pharmacy, holds the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center in Los Angeles, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020 AP Photo/Jae C. Hon

National Guard Helping to Roll Out COVID Vaccine

Guardsman will divvy up some vaccine batches, backfill medical staff in nursing homes and prisons.

The National Guard is helping with the rollout of an initial batch of 2.9 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, part of a complicated nationwide effort by federal and state governments and the private sector undertaken as the country passes 300,000 coronavirus-related deaths, health and Guard officials said Monday. 

In some states, Guardsmen and women are helping to break up shipments of the vaccine, which Pfizer releases in batches of 975 doses and which must be kept at minus 70 degrees Celsius. Guardsmen won’t generally be transporting the vaccine or giving shots, though some will help backfill medical staff in some nursing homes and prisons, Guard officials said on a conference call with reporters on Monday.

The first batches began going out on Friday, largely to health workers. People who receive the shot will get a second dose in three weeks, completing a course of vaccination that has tested as 95 percent effective.

“By Wednesday, sites in Washington to the shores of Guam” would have doses to administer, first and foremost, to healthcare workers, then to residents in nursing homes, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at a press event on Monday.

The U.S. government will also purchase 100 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine once it receives emergency use authorization, probably this week, said Azar. “This new federal purchase can give Americans even greater confidence we will have enough supply to vaccinate all Americans who want it by the second quarter of 2021,” he said. Some health logistics watchers had said that March or April was about the earliest to anticipate that the healthy general public would be able to access the vaccine. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, expressed a similar view on Friday in a conversation on NBC

The Guard is also surging staffing into some nursing homes and prisons, for instance in Ohio, to help offset high absenteeism due to COVID-19 spread among those workforces. 

“The limiting factor for our healthcare community and the greatest concern we have across the board that’s happening here in Ohio is the ability to staff not only hospital beds but nursing facilities,” said Maj. Gen. John C. Harris, Jr. of the Ohio National Guard. “When nursing homes have a shortage of staffing because of positive COVID-19 cases, we put together special rapid response teams to go in and backfill that staffing, not to administer the vaccine but provide patient care.” 

That will occur when the numbers of sick workers exceed minimum staffing levels at those facilities. It’s a similar story with the prisons. “We give our soldiers and airmen two days of training by the Department of Corrections and then they will go in and backfill that corrections staff, side-by-side with the staffing in those prisons,” Harris said. 

Local jails have the same problem, so the National Guard has received special authority to backfill positions in those facilities as well. A CDC study from October shows that about 6 percent of adults hospitalized for COVID-19 were healthcare workers. 

The news of vaccine distribution comes as the United States grapples with a tragic new milestone, the number of COVID-19 deaths surpassing 300,000 on Monday, according to data from Johns Hopkins. Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Robert Redfield has said the country could see 450,000 COVID-related deaths before February.