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39th Medical Group vaccinates Incirlik against COVID-19

Female medic administering a vaccine

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Kayla Blanchard, 39th Medical Group Immunization technician, administers a COVID-19 vaccination to Capt. Brent Luch, 39th Security Forces Squadron operations officer, during the initial series of vaccinations Jan. 8, 2021, at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. Prioritized DoD personnel are highly encouraged to take the vaccine to protect their health, their families, their community, and lower the public health risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ryan Lackey)

Three Airmen stand on a cargo loading truck, which is unloading from the back of a large propeller cargo aircraft.

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Joshua Stiltner, 37th Airlift Squadron loadmaster (center), inspects cargo before unloading it at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, Jan. 7, 2021. Medical supplies have special requirements for transport, must be carefully stored and proper amounts secured to ensure best effectiveness by medical personnel and to reduce waste. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ryan Lackey)

A closeup of a a pair of gloved hands holding two medicine vials.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, 39th Medical Support Squadron Medical Logistics warehouse NCO in charge, carefully moves Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine doses from freezer to a refrigerator for de-thawing at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, Jan. 8, 2021. The Moderna vaccine is a more temperature stable RNA type that remains stable at -20 degrees Celsius, but still needs to be thawed before it can be used. It cannot be refrozen, so Medical Logistics Airmen only thaw doses that will be used right away. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ryan Lackey)

An female Major holds open a refrigerator door for a male Airman to put vials of medicine inside.

U.S. Air Force Maj. Crystal Karahan, 39th Medical Support Squadron Medical Logistics flight commander, helps Staff Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, 39th MDSS Medical Logistics warehouse NCO in charge, thaw Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine doses at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, Jan. 8, 2021. Medical Logistics Airmen typically can’t rush order supplies like their civilian counterparts, so instead they worked with their U.S. Army Materiel Command and Defense Logistics Agency partners to supply the base with needed vaccine doses. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ryan Lackey)

Two Airmen stand in front of small cargo boxes and inspect the labels.

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Tyequashua Springs, 39th Medical Support Squadron Medical Logistics technician, and Staff Sgt. Briuk Heim, 39th MDSS Medical Logistics customer service NCO in charge, inspect newly delivered medical supply packages at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, Jan. 7, 2021. The Department of Defense has mandated that all personnel will continue to wear appropriate masks, practice physical distancing, wash hands and follow restriction of movement orders to help mitigate the spread of the COVID-19. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ryan Lackey)

A female captain talks to a small crowd of people in a clinic waiting room.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Whitney Patrick, 39th Medical Group physician assistant, briefs Airmen about the newly received COVID-19 vaccine during the first phase of vaccinations on Jan. 8, 2021, at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. All DoD personnel will continue to wear appropriate masks, practice physical distancing, wash hands, and follow restriction of movement to protect our safety as a large portion of the population will need to be vaccinated before COVID-19 risks diminish. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ryan Lackey)

Female medic administering a vaccine

U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Janee Walker, 39th Security Forces Squadron chief enlisted manager, holds onto a COVID-19 vaccination card during the first phase of immunizations on Jan. 8, 2021, at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. Vaccines for COVID-19 are only available after they are demonstrated to be safe and effective in large phase-three clinical trials, have been authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and have been manufactured and distributed safely and securely. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ryan Lackey)

person giving a thumbs up after receiving a vaccine

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Kayla Baxter, 39th Medical Group Ambulance Services shift leader, administers a COVID-19 vaccination to Lt. Col. Carol West, 39th Medical Support Squadron laboratory commander, during the initial series of vaccinations Jan. 8, 2021, at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. The Department of Defense is committed to protecting service members, civilian employees, and families around the globe; safeguarding national security capabilities; and supporting the whole-of nation response. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ryan Lackey)

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