“One shot, one arm at a time,” boasted U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Donald McKinney Jr., a California National Guard combat medic, while inoculating a Tehama County resident with the COVID-19 vaccine.
McKinney is with Cal Guard’s 143rd Field Artillery Regiment, Joint Task Force 749 (Hope). His team vaccinated 500 to 900 people daily during its peak stretch. Like McKinney’s group, dozens of other vaccination support teams staffed remote areas in Northern, Central and Southern California, providing accessibility to vaccines. Rather than traveling to massive vaccination pods in large cities, Cal Guardsmen administered the doses in small communities.
“COVID definitely affected a lot of lives,” McKinney said.
As of May 31, Cal Guard members administered stood nearly 1.5 million vaccines.
Task Force Hope surpassed 500,000 vaccinations administered, while Cal Guard medical personnel at Oakland Ring Central Coliseum also helped pass the half-million mark just before closing its temporary COVID-19 facility.
“It’s an honor to be able to help FEMA, state and local governments,” said U.S. Army Col. Robin Hoeflein, commander of 115th Regional Support Group and Joint Task Force 115. “We helped administer more than a million vaccinations just with these two elements alone. That shows just how much our Soldiers and Airmen are dedicated to this mission. They’re putting their own personal lives on hold to help our communities.”
The state of California didn’t receive COVID-19 vaccination supplies until mid-December, according to the California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES). The first batch went to health care workers on the front line, like doctors and nurses, including Cal Guard “first responders” such as medics and firefighters.
The Oakland site began vaccination operations Feb. 15, with hundreds of Cal Guard Soldiers and Airmen working with local and state personnel to inoculate people. Within three weeks, 132,000 residents were vaccinated.
“The key to reaching the 500,000 goal was that (Cal Guard) was allowed to remain in place once Cal OES finished its portion of the operation,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Leroy Cisneros, Oakland Community Vaccination Center officer in charge. “Alameda County would not have reached the 500,000 as quickly without us.”
“We are thankful to our partners who advocated to make sure that this site, a vital tool in stopping the spread of COVID-19 in our county, continues serving East Bay communities that need it most,” said Colleen Chawla, director of the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency, which worked with Cal Guard to vaccinate up to 5,000 people a day.
Task Force 749 — Army and Air Guardsmen and state personnel — included more than 500 medics who dispersed into VSTs, regional medical strike teams and collection transport analysis teams that assisted communities throughout California. Aside from sending teams into small communities, the Hope task force set megapods at Sacramento’s Cal Expo and Long Beach’s convention center.
As in Oakland, the facilities catered to drive-through operations. Recipients stayed in vehicles as medics dispensed vaccinations, and walk-ins were directed to adjacent tents to be vaccinated.
Long Beach and Cal Expo vaccination operations began in late January. Cal Guard ceased Cal Expo operations in early May.
“This definitely wasn’t an easy operation,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Phillip Thomas, Task Force 749 commander, about the Cal Expo mission where Guardsmen inoculated as many as 700 to 900 people a day. “When you look at the numbers, 500,000 is a lot of vaccinations. That reflects every Soldier and Airman’s ability to respond to what they needed to do.”
Thomas, who at one point amassed more than 900 Guardsmen under his task force, credited local agencies — such as the California Department of Public Health — with leading Cal Guard’s success.
“This is a true testament to our Soldiers and Airmen. What makes me most proud is a lot of these people were hurting from the pandemic economically or health-wise,” Thomas said. “But our troops stepped up, solved problems, then went 100 miles per hour after resolving problems.”
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Samual Lao, 749th medical operations officer, said the 500,000 vaccinations were administered by fewer than 250 medics and providers who spent hour after hour, working late into shifts, to ensure that people received the doses.
“What is more significant is that these numbers reflect service provided to the elderly and most vulnerable of Californians who would have had to wait longer for their choice to protect themselves if it was not for contributions and efforts of the services members on this mission,” Lao said.
The CTAT, RMST and VST teams supported more than 42 counties with testing, medical and vaccination needs, he said.
“What I saw that blew me away more than anything is the working relationship that Cal Guard built with county health officials,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Abraham Viramontes, 749th deputy commander. “That really made the biggest impact.”
Northern California CTAT teams, commanded by U.S Army Maj. Mikhail Karton, injected as many as 900 to 1,400 people a day. In mid-May, a critical operations site in Yuba City closed after state health officials determined it reached its goal.
“It seems like we’re winning the fight against COVID,” Karton said. “Primary mission was to vaccinate everyone who wants a vaccine.”
“It’s really important for people to get vaccinated so we can all get back to our normal lives,” said U.S. Army Pfc. Ripanjeet Kaur, a combat medic with the 143rd Military Police Battalion and one of hundreds of JTF 749 inoculators. “We know how 2020 was when the whole pandemic started. The whole state, the entire country and even the world went into lockdown. People couldn’t go anywhere, businesses closed and the economy was down. And now that we have the vaccine, it’s important for people to get it so they can come out and see the world.”
One shot, one arm at a time.