SALT RIVER PIMA-MARICOPA INDIAN COMMUNITY, Ariz. – COVID-19 took the world by storm, forcing everyone to prepare for the worst kind of emergency, the unknown. Countries were forced to put their emergency preparedness and response training to test on a real-world scale.
Once scientists began to dissect the virus, the vaccine was created. The struggle for many communities was how to efficiently distribute it without breaking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's safety recommendations. That is how the military got involved.
The U.S. Armed Forces is constantly training on emergency preparedness. For communities in Arizona, they sought help from their federal first line of defense, the Arizona National Guard.
“We stood up Task Force Medical about a year ago, right at the beginning of the outbreak,” said Col. Tom Leeper, Arizona Army National Guard state surgeon and Task Force Medical commander. “Since then, we’ve done personal protection equipment procurement and distribution, nursing home support, testing, and now we’ve moved into the vaccination business.”
This level of response is one of the responsibilities of the Arizona National Guard and is considered a Defense Support of Civil Authorities mission.
“Our mandate, the adjutant general of the Arizona National Guard, also called TAG, is to fill gaps that exist in the community in response to COVID-19,” Leeper said. “Over the period of one year, we have been adjusting our focus on what the most important need is for the community and what the gaps are.”
As vaccines were released, Arizona communities faced the challenge of setting up and staffing locations accessible to the majority of their residents.
Leeper's task force only steps in to assist when requested, and that’s what began to happen all over the state.
“We do all sort of things like helping the community with the flow, setup, and planning of their PODs,” Leeper said. “There are 15 counties in Arizona and 15 different ways of doing things. No POD is the same, and we help, when asked, the agencies plan their PODs. Then we fill in and help them until they get their operations going fluidly for themselves.”
As the need across the state continued to grow, Leeper realized he didn’t have the staffing to help facilitate the request, so he began to use his resources to get more assistance.
“About four months ago, things were ramping up pretty quickly and Task Force Med is pretty small; we don’t have a whole lot of medical professionals and medics that can just go all over the state,” Leeper said. “As we started running low on folks, I had to figure out other ways to get more boots on the ground, and one of the ways was to reach out to the Army, Air Force and Navy Reserves.”
It is not common for medics from the U.S. Air Force Reserve to work alongside members from the Air and Army National Guard stateside. However, Leeper had no problem getting Reserve Airmen from the 944th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, to volunteer during this pandemic.
“We had to be very judicious about where we go and how many people we can commit to any particular site because the numbers were low, but when we got the 944th Fighter Wing Airmen, we were able to send them out to the smaller counties where they have vaccine sites that are only open one or two days a week,” Leeper said.
One of these Airmen explained that being able to use her annual tour in this way was not just rewarding but educational.
“As a nurse, I already had the skills to administer the shots, but what I got from this experience is seeing how these PODs operate and how the organizations came together to set up and operate an incident command system for a big response like this,” said Reserve Senior Airman Danielle Ippolito, 944th Medical Squadron. “It’s tiring, but it’s rewarding. Knowing that I am helping slow the spread and help normalize things again makes these 12-hour days worth it.”
The relief these communities felt when service members began showing up was immediately noticed by fellow staffers.
“Having that availability of qualified staff to be able to come into the community and provide their services is critical for us,” Nelson said. “It was really a plug-and-play situation. The service members are very mission- and orders-driven, so that makes it easy for us. They have been training and operating in larger-scale scenarios throughout their career, so they can easily jump in, get directions, and perform without hesitation.”
Army Guard Spc. Karston Gardner, combat medic, 856th Military Police Company, said it was easy to work alongside the Reserve Airmen.
“It was seamless to come in and start performing vaccinations,” Gardner said. “We didn’t need to train each other on the shots or the computer tracking system. We don’t see the uniform; we see the mission at hand.”
Leeper explained that while they expect to continue building on the partnerships created during this crisis, the task force has one priority as it helps Arizona residents.
“The overall goal for this task force is to get these communities and Arizona to the other side of this COVID-19 pandemic, and we will continue to work at it,” Leeper said.