En español | Members of the U.S. armed forces are on a mission to defeat a new enemy: the coronavirus. After months in the field, they are finally starting to win.
Since February, approximately 5,150 medical and support personnel from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force have helped staff Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) community vaccination centers set up at schools, stadiums and fairgrounds. Those military personnel have administered about 4.5 million COVID-19 vaccinations at FEMA locations in 25 states and the Virgin Islands.
“At the beginning we were vaccinating people 60 and older. Many of them told us that this was the first time they left their house since March  because they were scared,” said Alejandro De La Campa, FEMA’s vaccination site manager at York College in Queens, New York. “Now they feel relief. And they are very thankful that they [military members] were saving their lives.”
De La Campa’s site in Queens, like other FEMA vaccination sites, was selected through a process that identified the communities that would benefit the most from a mass-vaccination center. Data taken into consideration included residents’ races, ethnicities, ages, disabilities, economic status and languages spoken.
“Queens is the most culturally diverse community in the entire world, representing over 130 different languages. So that’s unique,” he said. “They were the people most in need in the state of New York.”
The location, staffed by over 100 members of the U.S. Navy, can offer up to 3,000 shots a day. Over 212,000 doses have been administered during the pandemic, half to residents 50 and older.
“We’re really interacting with a community,” De La Campa said. “It is so rewarding to hear from different people saying that, ‘You’re saving our lives. Now we can start the process of going back to normalcy,’ especially from the elderly people.”
Doctors, corpsmen, medics, pharmacists and general-purpose forces were deployed from all over the country to support FEMA vaccination sites. The military’s involvement is part of the country’s National Response Plan, which calls for support from other federal agencies whenever there is a presidential disaster declaration. Most commonly, this occurs during catastrophes such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or wildfires.
“The assets, whether it was Navy, Air Force, Army, Marines, all these people came out of war-fighting units,” said Maj. Gen. Jeff Van, the commander of Joint Task Force Civil Support, which helps respond to national emergencies. “We put task forces together of personnel to be able to facilitate the needs of the state requested through FEMA.”
When shots were available only to older adults in February and March, the number of seniors who came to get vaccinated maxed out most of the sites’ capacity. Demand tapered off once the majority of older adults were fully inoculated.
“They know what it means to be an American and not just looking out for yourself, by service to your country and to your community,” Van said. “Hats off to senior people who showed up to get your shot. And I hope they urge their kids and their grandkids to do what they did and go get the shot.”
Joint Task Force Civil Support is just one of the military units that has supported FEMA’s vaccination sites. It continues to operate and is ready to provide many more shots as needed, according to the commander.
The Department of Defense “cannot go on to do what it is designed to do without the homeland getting through this pandemic. So, help us help you, and go get the shot,” Van said.
A mission to save lives
The effort to inoculate the public against COVID-19 is the largest vaccination campaign in U.S. history and has utilized all levels of government. Coordination has been critical.
“We see all of us here, all the federal agencies and the state, as a family that’s serving another family, the community of Queens,” De La Campa said. “That made a big difference. The teamwork and the spirit of helping and saving lives have been the key to our success.”
During his 32 years working for FEMA, De la Campa has assisted in more than 100 national emergencies, including Hurricane Katrina, the Sept. 11 attacks and California wildfires.
“This is the most rewarding event that I have ever worked in my entire career,” he said. “Why? Because we’re saving lives. So many people show us their gratitude.”
Van echoed the sentiment: “For all the service members and DoD civilians, we have a lot of pride and satisfaction in knowing that we were out there helping so many people and stopping the spread of COVID. Being a part of it is one of the highlights of my career.”
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.