California Guard unit partners with Fort Irwin hospital to administer COVID-19 vaccines

Robert Taylor, the emergency manager for Weed Army Community Hospital, is part of the team that manages COVID-19 vaccinations for all of Fort Irwin, Calif.

Taylor is also a noncommissioned officer with the California Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 144th Field Artillery Regiment, which often holds its annual training at Fort Irwin.

Sgt. Robert Taylor (left), an evacuation noncommissioned officer with 1st Battalion, 144th Field Artillery Regiment of the California Army National Guard, and the emergency manager for Weed Army Community Hospital, assists Pfc. Lane Heis (center), a health care specialist with Weed ACH, with documentation June 24 during a COVID-19 vaccine event at the Dr. Mary E. Walker Center on Fort Irwin, Calif. Taylor, a Tacoma, Wash., Native, served in his civilian and National Guard capacity during the event. (Army photograph by Kimberly Hackbarth)

The Tacoma, Wash., native merged those two roles June 24, when medics and physician assistants from his unit assisted Weed ACH in administering COVID-19 vaccines to the Fort Irwin community at the Dr. Mary E. Walker Center, here.

“Over the last six months, our team [at Weed ACH] has worked together to get a product that lets us vaccinate as many people from the installation at once on any given day,” Taylor said.

In his role on the COVID-19 vaccination team, Taylor works closely with Staff Sgt. Tyler Smith, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the department of preventive medicine for Weed ACH.

Smith and his department handle the medical portion of COVID-19 vaccine events, while Taylor’s team focuses on the administrative aspect, including documentation and ensuring the right people show up in the right time slot to receive the vaccine.

Taylor’s unit spent nearly a week on Fort Irwin conducting range and field operations for their annual training.

Knowing Taylor and his team were on the installation, Smith reached out to see if Taylor’s team would be interested in helping out with COVID-19 vaccinations on one of the days when they did not have training.

“I think it’s a good opportunity to encourage those relationships and build those partnerships between two entities that don’t usually interact in this capacity,” said Smith, a Sterling Heights, Mich., native. “Many of the National Guard medical personnel had worked at the satellite vaccination sites throughout the country, so they brought a lot of experience with them here.”

First Lt. Katelyn Harding (right), a physician assistant with 1st Battalion, 144th Field Artillery Regiment of the California Army National Guard, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a member of the Fort Irwin community June 24 at the Dr. Mary E. Walker Center on Fort Irwin, Calif., as Spec. Jacob Gutierrez (far left), a health care specialist with 1st Bn., 144th FA Regt., watches. Harding, a San Diego native, Gutierrez, a Rancho Cucamonga native, and other medical personnel with 1st Bn., 144th FA Regt. augmented the COVID-19 vaccine event hosted by Weed Army Community Hospital. (Army photograph by Kimberly Hackbarth)

Taylor spoke with his unit leadership who agreed, and then got the appropriate approvals from the hospital leadership for the 1st Bn., 144th FA Regt. medical Soldiers to assist with vaccinations.

“Fortunately, a lot of our Soldiers have already been doing vaccinations, whether it’s for the Army as a COVID-19 response or as a [Soldier readiness processing] annual requirement,” said Taylor. “We do vaccinations for our own unit making sure that regular things like flu season are taken care of internally.”

Capt. Pablo Maese, a physician assistant with 1st Bn., 144th FA Regt., said that being National Guard members and members of the medical community, he and his medics are always available to help and assist in times of need.

“We had all just come off the COVID missions anyways, so this is still fresh in our minds,” said Maese, a Palmdale, Calif., native.

According to Maese, starting early in the spring of 2020, many members of the National Guard’s medical community were activated by the governor of California’s order to assist with COVID-19 relief operations throughout the state.

“The [U.S. Army Medical Department] community in California and, honestly, throughout the country have been working very hard,” Maese said, adding that many National Guard members were activated not only for COVID-19 missions, but also for other events, causing many to work back-to-back missions. “They continue to serve without complaint, often forgoing their civilian jobs and many of the Soldiers are in school and have had to give up a semester or two in order to help support relief operations throughout the state.”

Initial relief operations involved nursing care duties, assisting nursing homes, and augmenting nursing home staff, said Maese.

“The mission then progressed into immunizations, supplementing emergency departments, [intensive care units], and any medical facilities that were short staffed,” he said.

While Weed ACH did not experience as drastic of a staffing shortage as many other medical facilities throughout the country, staffing the COVID-19 events has been a challenging part for the hospital, which has hosted nearly 70 vaccine events since Dec. 23 while still providing regular patient care functions.

“In preparation for these events, there’s a lot of logistics that come into play,” Smith said.

Members of Weed Army Community Hospital and 1st Battalion, 144th Field Artillery Regiment of the California Army National Guard, pose for a photograph June 24 at the Dr. Mary E. Walker Center on Fort Irwin, Calif., following a COVID-19 vaccination event. Medical personnel with 1st Bn., 144th FA Regt. augmented the COVID-19 vaccine event hosted by Weed Army Community Hospital. (Army photograph by Kimberly Hackbarth)

Logistics include gathering necessary supplies such as syringes, gloves and other medical equipment, reconstituting the COVID-19 vaccine, and ensuring the vaccine is kept at the appropriate temperature.

“In addition to that, we train and supervise all the individuals who actually administer the vaccine and also ensure the documentation is done in MHS GENESIS in a timely manner,” Smith added.

The National Guard unit stepped in to help during Fort Irwin’s summer block leave when many Soldiers on post take vacation, to include the medical personnel from other Fort Irwin units who typically augment the vaccine events.

“To be able to bring in an outside entity that can operate in the same capacity as we do and at the same time alleviate some of that burden, even for one day, is a definite benefit to the organization and the Soldiers and staff that are constantly at these events,” Smith said.

Taylor agreed.

“It’s nice to put different people in place and give them that experience if they wanted it, as well as really alleviate that pressure and give some people a break who’ve been doing this time and time again,” he said.

Taylor and Smith oriented the National Guard members to the process Weed ACH follows for vaccinations and walked them through the first two patients, Smith said.

“Seeing their capability and competence, we were able to step back and run it like a normal event,” he said. “All vaccine today was administered in a safe manner in a controlled environment by very capable people.”

While receiving augmentation from the National Guard may have been a one-time thing, Taylor successfully brought together two Army entities for a good cause in order to continue to vaccinate the Fort Irwin community and get everyone closer to a more normal tomorrow.

More Stories