The first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have yet to arrive at Fort Riley. No matter when they get here, the team from Fort Riley’s Irwin Army Community Hospital is ready.
Dec. 15, the medical professionals from IACH completed their second rehearsal of the process they plan to implement. This second event was a full dress rehearsal with needles, vials of fluid to simulate the vaccine and every stage in the process manned and practiced.
For Maj. Gen. D. A. Sims, commander of the 1st Infantry Division and Fort Riley, this was a harbinger of a shift in the tide of battle against a disease that has ravaged the country for about 10 months.
“Well, if you … go all the way back to the winter of last year, the viruses had the upper hand,” Sims said. “We have identified ways that we can prevent the spread of the virus, whether it's this mask or social distancing or hand washing, but aside from that, we haven't been able to do anything that keeps the virus at bay and really helps us to break the chain. We're finally at that point. So, the vaccine offers an opportunity to stop the virus … our first offensive weapon against the virus.”
As with any offensive weapon, strategy must be employed to maximize capability. That strategy is why the IACH team has been planning and practicing the vaccination process.
“Each vial holds a certain number of doses depending on whether it's Pfizer or Moderna,” Sims said. The thought that we would lose one of those doses because we're not going through all the right procedures and dotting I’s and crossing T's - that's just not responsible. So we want to make sure that we lose zero doses. One of those doses can help one person. We want to make sure we're helping everybody that is able to be helped.”
Part of the preparation is also storage. Since Fort Riley leaders and medical professionals do not yet know how much or which vaccine will be made available, they had to ensure they could store both the Pfizer vaccine at a temperature of -70 degrees Celsius, and the Moderna version which can remain stable for six months at -20 degrees Celsius.
Lee Tanner, logistics supervisor at IACH, explains that should anything go wrong with any of the freezers, a pretty modern monitoring system, that includes regular visual checks, will alert the logistics team.
“We monitor back here twice a day and plus it's hooked up to an alarm system, which is a modified electronic alarm system,” Tanner said. “I have the digital display set up on my computer, medical maintenance has it on their computers, and also, it will call our cell phones or call our work phones. So once we get that call, we’ll come back and look to see what the problem is … relocate that merchandise into another proper fridge.”
Tanner explains that part of that strategic planning means ensuring proper storage capacity and having back-ups to the backups.
“Right now we have this warehouse,” Tanner said. “I have three portable backups and plus we have the pharmacy and the lab has some. Also, our last contingency is the (dinning facility units).”
The same is true for the ultra-low freezers that can support the Pfizer vaccine.
“We have two now,” Tanner said. “I have two new ones that will be here this week or next week, plus the lab has one upstairs also. Then there are three portables … they can go down to -50.”
All the plans and strategy, combined with the deployment planning for who gets the vaccine first and how that will work translates to something else for Col. Edgar Arroyo, IACH commander. What it means doesn’t show up in a lab test or an efficiency scorecard.
“I think it provides hope, ” Arroyo said. “As the medical team for the Army we see a lot of hope in the community to know that … there’s something in motion toward a more proactive approach to the health of the population.”
And that hope is timely for a community of professionals who have been on the front lines for ten months.
“I think its hope that, you know, at some point it will level out, that we won't have a medical staff that's that's almost at the verge of fatigue,” Arroyo said.
Until the vaccine arrives, the staff will continue to refine their plans. As with every community planning the priority for who gets the vaccine, hospital staff and emergency responders will have the option to go first, then comes those working in essential services and those due to deploy. The option is also a choice.
“Now it's not (mandatory),” Sims said. “It's emergency use authorization, and so as a result, it's not compulsory. You know, I will tell you as soon as my shot’s available, I'll have a shot in the arm. They could give it to me about 10 times if they wanted to, but it is not mandatory.”