INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey --
The first doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, intended to inoculate essential leadership and first responders, was delivered to Incirlik Air Base via a U.S. Air Force C-130J Super Hercules on Jan. 7, 2021.
The 39th Medical Group picked up the cargo from the flight line and had the vaccine ready to administer to Airmen within hours of its arrival, but that wouldn’t have been possible without the dedicated efforts of the appointed group of Airmen, which gathered to help the base surmount the unique challenges Incirlik faced.
“The COVID-19 Working Group was formed within the medical group to figure out the most effective and efficient way to order, ship, receive, educate Airmen and administer the vaccine to them,” said Capt. Whitney Patrick, 39th Medical Group physician assistant. “We called on experts from logistics, medical providers, immunization technicians and more to address the slew of issues and concerns surrounding that task.”
Challenge number one: obtain the vaccine.
The U.S. Department of Defense initiated “Operation Warp Speed”, which facilitated the development, manufacturing and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to military personnel. The Moderna (word missing) was accepted for emergency use late last year, however, Incirlik proved to be an unusual case of location and accessibility.
“We worked directly with vaccine manufacturers to find a solution to get us a supply overseas,” said Master Sgt. Jessica Lyn Probst, 39th Medical Logistics flight chief. “The Moderna RNA vaccine was available and had a more easily sustainable temperature for transport, so that left getting it here intact.”
The base’s location precludes commercial air delivery methods enjoyed elsewhere, so most packages travel by slower ground transport. Vaccines require controlled cold conditions to not spoil during travel, so standard ground transport methods that supply the base were ruled out, Probst said.
“We worked out a plan with our partners at U.S. Air Force Europe, U.S. Army Materiel Command and Defense Logistics Agency to have it shipped to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and then put on a military cargo flight directly to here,” Probst said.
That plan quickly went into motion. The vaccine arrived in Ramstein on Jan. 6, and Airmen from the 86th Airlift Wing helped load a C-130J Super Hercules, to be flown by Airmen from their own 37th Airlift Squadron to Incirlik, where it landed the following day.
Challenge number two: education.
Medical logistics Airmen directly secured supplies of the vaccine from the flight line, ensured the doses survived transport, and then immediately began to prepare it for a fast turnaround to dispense the vaccine to Airmen the next day.
Yet this was only half the battle, as the vaccine came highly endorsed, it is voluntary for Airmen to take it.
“The (U.S. Center for Disease Control) made an emergency authorization of the COVID-19 vaccines to help combat the pandemic, but it’s not fully licensed, so it’s not required yet,” said Staff Sgt. Yamisha Jones, 39th Medical Group Warrior Medicine flight chief. “We needed to ensure everyone slated to get the vaccine had an informed choice and could have any questions or concerns addressed readily by expert staff.”
A two-pronged effort ensued, first to set up ‘chalks’ of 10 Airmen at a time to be briefed and second to arrange a triage, vaccination, observation and follow-up areas to handle waves of Airmen flowing through the clinic, all while preserving sanitation and social distancing.
Challenge number three: persistent vaccination efforts.
One dose isn’t enough, as the new vaccines need to be administered twice and then booster doses regularly like other vaccines. The medical group has to keep up with hundreds and eventually thousands of service members by meticulously adding to a database of who received it, who opted not to and who has yet to get it, all in an effort to reduce COVID-19 spread.
“This isn’t a routine flu vaccine, COVID is all new, so we’re very careful and thorough in all respects from handling to documenting,” Jones said. “We trained up everyone on safety, CDC guidelines and how to track everything before the vaccine even arrived. We were and continue to be ready for this.”
Dozens of people from across all medical disciplines were enlisted to accomplish the effort. Hundreds of Airmen passed through the clinic in the following weeks to receive an educational brief, optional doctor consultations and vaccine doses. Medics worked tirelessly on long shifts to ensure the rapid rollout stayed on schedule.
“The goal is to get everyone eventually inoculated, even our displaced units throughout the country,” Patrick said. “This is a process and one that will continue for some time. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and all the restrictions that we endure are stressful, so this is the medical group’s effort to get us all back to normal, for the mission and for our Airmen’s lives. We want everyone healthy and safe.”
The Air Force is committed to protecting its Airmen in the face of a pandemic while remaining mission ready and vigilant at all times to protect the interests of the U.S. and its allies. Vaccinations are a significant step, but the DOD and the CDC both strongly encourage Airmen to continue practicing safe distancing and sanitation habits going forward.
The latest information about COVID-19 and Incirlik Air Base can be found on the base website: https://incirlik.usaf.afpims.mil/COVID-19-INFO