ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Illinois – Members of the Illinois National Guard are no stranger to deployments. Many have seen multiple combat tours during the last 20 years, taking them to overseas theaters and far from friends and families.
Their latest mission, however, brings the enemy to their own backyards, with their loved ones in the line of fire. The stakes are high, and they are engaging without reservation.
These “backyard battlefields” are local COVID-19 immunization sites set up across Illinois by state and local health officials in an effort to ramp up the timeframe for vaccinating residents against COVID-19.
While the spaces and vaccines are ample, staffing the sites has been an obstacle in the roll-out. That’s where the National Guard has been able to step up and partner with local health officials to ensure a streamlined and logistically sound process to optimize the speed and efficacy of vaccine distribution.
Operating at 30 static sites across Illinois, in addition to 23 mobile teams, more than 1,450 Army and Air) National Guard troops have been activated for the COVID-19 immunization mission.
As operating procedures are becoming more standardized across the state, and as increased eligibility guidelines are expanding to more categories of residents, plans to open additional sites are underway to reach every county and community as quickly as possible for vaccine administration.
Maj. Gen. Rich Neely, the adjutant general of Illinois and commander of the Illinois National Guard, visited the site in Milan in Rock Island County, March 26.
Stood up only a few weeks ago, the site has seen a steady pace of local residents sign up for appointment slots and was operating with military precision when Neely arrived, according to local officials. He shared how the sites had been chosen and the impact the Illinois Guard has had on the mission.
“The Illinois Department of Public Health, in partnership with the local health departments, chooses the sites where the military vaccinations team will support based on the highest needs across the state,” he said. “As of yesterday, I am happy to report that about 1.8 million people across Illinois are fully vaccinated.”
According to Neely, sites supported by the Illinois National Guard have administered more than 600,000 doses of vaccinations across the state’s communities in a variety of settings, from schools, colleges and universities to long-term health care facilities, essential business, prisons, churches, and other congregant settings.
For the Milan site, troops arrived almost three weeks ago and started administering doses after a week of set up.
“Here in Rock Island County, we have four teams on site with 63 Soldiers and Airmen committed to this mission in a unique combination of two static and two mobile teams,” Neely said. “Our med techs are able to roll out to a lot of hard-to-get-to communities, and we have seen a lot of success across the state as these teams continue to work with the health departments to identify the highest need communities.”
Neely said a total of 85 sites in the state are either fully or partially supported by the National Guard, and his goal is to visit each one personally. For him, morale is one of the biggest force multipliers when it comes to this type of mission, especially when the mission is executed on their home turf.
“One of the key reasons for my visits to the sites is to do a morale check for our guardsmen and women,” he said. “What is most important is they understand the significance of the mission and the gratitude of the community and their leadership. Each person brings with them the capability to make this mission happen.”
It’s a capability that has moved up vaccinations considerably across the state. The Rock Island County site, for example, has seen an increase over the last few weeks, moving the total number vaccinated to 14 percent as of March 26. Much of that simply couldn’t happen without the Guard stepping up, according to members of the Rock Island County Health Department.
“As a health department of a few more than 50 people, we were doing a mass vaccination clinic prior to this and did 1,000 people, one day a week, and that was an ‘all hands on deck’ situation,” said Janet Hill, chief operating officer of the Rock Island County Health Department. “With the Guard site established in Milan, we have the capability to do 1,000 people, six days a week.”
It’s also been an opportunity for state and local level emergency response partners to put into practice scenario responses they have been planning since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in the event of something like a pandemic.
“It was great to have Rock Island County be selected as a site by the governor for this support from the National Guard,” said Nita Ludwig, the Rock Island County health department administrator.
“Since 9/11, we have planned with our state partners for something like this, and it’s been so positive working with those partners on the COVID-19 response. The Guard is here through June and we hope to get as much of the county vaccinated before they leave,” she added.
Recognizing the unusual opportunity to work within their own communities, Neely said it’s evident the troops working in the clinics understand that, somewhere else in the state, their loved ones are visiting vaccination sites just like the ones they are running, and recognize the critical nature of not only performing the job, but understanding the concerns of who may not understand or be fearful of the vaccination process.
“We had an elderly woman in a wheelchair come into a site, and she was clearly intimidated about the clinic and the vaccination,” Neely said. “We had a Soldier go over, bend down and hold her hand while the entire process was explained to her. It really brings a tear to your eyes because these folks really care about what they are doing precisely because it is the people from their community they are helping.”
And the help isn’t just coming in the form of the actual clinic work. Hill said the economic boost from the Guard’s mobilization to the local community has been a much needed, unintended consequence.
“Having the Guard here is a big economic boost for the Quad Cities,” she said. “At a time when restaurants have been hurting and hotels and other business have been suffering financially, having them here has provided some greatly needed revenue.”
The length of the Illinois National Guard COVID-19 mission depends on the needs of the state, but Neely estimated 90 to 120 days for each site before operations turn back to local authorities and new sites are established based on community needs and surge capacity.
But, he said, they are always at the ready to assist when called upon.
“No matter the cause, when they are called, they continue to respond,” Neely said. “They are rock stars in this pandemic response, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.
“This mission brings to light the capability we bring and the value we have to our country and our communities,” Neely said. “We live in this community, we come from this this community and we are so thankful to be here.”