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By Joshua Cohen
Joint Force Headquarters - Vermont National Guard Public Affairs
As members of the Vermont National Guard’s pandemic response force disassembled and stored an emergency medical surge facility recently used as a mass vaccination site, termination of Vermont’s COVID-19 state of emergency has led to a shift in priorities for Soldiers and Airmen supporting the State’s Strategic National Stockpile.
Specifically intended to store and provide Personal Protective Equipment for emergency medical situations, distribution of such equipment remains a priority for about half of the Guard members posted to Vermont’s SNS.
Another major SNS function is large scale COVID-19 vaccine storage, thanks to substantial refrigeration capacity. Now, with a majority of Vermont’s adult population having received their shots, the Soldiers and Airmen supporting the SNS are now transitioning the mission’s emphasis.
“There are still major requests for PPE and the vaccine itself, it's still busy but not as much as it was, although we’ve done a lot it's not over yet,” according to Air Guard Tech. Sgt. Christina McGill. A 4EXO Public Health Specialist with 13 years in service, McGill is the noncommissioned officer in charge of the SNS warehouse Personal Protective Equipment section.
“Right now, I supervise 11 people on my team for PPE and it has been awesome, everyone from both the Army and Air sides have worked together to make sure the mission came first, and we got everything out to the customers that requested PPE,” McGill said.
One Airman on McGill’s PPE team, A1C Abass Kallon, said he has been “on this mission since May 2020, what I primarily do is receive and organize all PPE supplies in the warehouse, I collect the items, verify condition and prepare them for shipment.”
Presently Kallon and fellow Guardsmen are supporting vaccine logistics. “The vaccine section receives orders, and they give us the list, we have to prep everything, this means each week we prepare 500 vaccinations, so that’s part of the reason we’re still here,” Kallon said.
He noted support to National Guard vaccination sites is also provided, “to distribute PPE to civilians in need or to deliver to a location where the Guard is operating, previously doing COVID-19 testing, now providing vaccinations.”
Kallon said “it will be a slow change back, I don’t think people will stop wearing masks, gloves and protective gowns, people are still cautious.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic Kallon’s section had to provide for delivery of emergency PPE requests, “almost every weekend and a lot of nights, even once in snowstorm.”
He noted that while the mission is changing, it is far from over.
“There are two parts of the equation, adults have the vaccination, kids have not, so now the goal is to make sure kids get their vaccinations, that is going to be next, so until then we are going to continue this mission in the same way. We have a project coming up to send masks to school districts in preparation for when schools reopen in September.”
Kallon has been in the Vermont Air Guard since 2019 after emigrating from Sierra Leone in 2002.
McGill explained over the course of time, “we have had between 40-50 Guardsmen supporting SNS operations, some have come and gone, others like A1C Kallon have been on since day one, it was a heavy workload from Monday-Friday with weekends often included, once the vaccination came out our workload began to loosen up, it is not as busy as it was.”
In another section of Vermont’s SNS, test kit preparation and distribution are ongoing, according to Air National Guard Master Sgt. Kirk Betzima, noncommissioned officer in charge. “Right now, we have an effort to supply COVID-19 test kits to summer camps in the state.”
Since the pandemic started, Betzima said his group has shipped “just shy of 198,000 test kits, we put together 140,000 of them here at the SNS, now the test kit distribution mission has eased up, replaced by vaccine distribution.”
With the additional bandwidth, priorities shifted to support vaccine clinics by getting the word out to businesses close to the pop-up sites so employees could take advantage of the proximity to get a vaccination.
Betzima explained, “we basically used the internet to locate businesses near vaccination sites, from there we would call the company and let them know of the clinic’s location, times and dates so that information could be passed on to employees.”
14 Guardsmen on Betzima’s staff took turns researching business locations and making calls. The project kicked off on May 22, concluding when Vermont reached the 80 percent COVID-19 vaccination rate.
“Businesses we called were surprised to hear from us, in a good way, they were all very receptive to the information we were offering on the vaccination sites.”
An F-35A Lightning II crew chief, Betzima has been in the Vermont Air National Guard for 27 years, and part of Vermont’s pandemic response since December 2020. He previously served in the US Marine Corps.