Keesler AFB medics bring COVID-19 relief to Gulf Coast veterans

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Holly Cook
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs

Members of the 81st Medical Group assisted in administering the COVID-19 vaccine to members of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, Dec. 21.

Approximately 30 members of the 81st MDG coordinated with the Defense Health Agency, 81st Training Wing leadership, and officials from the Armed Forces Retirement Home to order the vaccine for the retirement home residents and staff members.

“We worked to determine their needs, place the order on their behalf, and determined how we could best support them,” said Maj. Sofia Szari, 81st Healthcare Operations Squadron chief of allergy and immunology. “We had to work through our credentials and legal staff to draft a new memorandum of agreement with the Armed Forces Retirement Home to allow our staff to administer the vaccine.”

The 81st MDG personnel took charge of the process and are responsible for delivery and storage.

“We drove to Pensacola to pick up the vaccine and delivered it to the residents and staff to initiate same-day vaccination,” Szari said. “We are providing safe and secure storage for their vaccines at our facility as they do not have the ability to store vaccines at the retirement home. When we pick them up from Naval Air Station Pensacola, (Florida) the vaccines are taken out of ultra-cold storage, and we have five days to use all vaccines before they expire. We are driving them out daily from Keesler and bringing back any leftovers to Keesler to prevent wasted vaccines.”

The process of providing the vaccine to the residents could span over multiple weeks, depending on how many residents volunteer to receive the vaccine. Along with the residents, some Keesler Air Force Base medics and first responders have started volunteering to receive the vaccine.

“The Defense Department has prioritized personnel falling under the department into different phases to receive the vaccine based off of a national prioritization plan and members of the 81st Medical Group have stepped up in full force to provide relief to our community members at the retirement home, who have volunteered to receive the vaccine,” said Col. Christopher Estridge, 81st MDG commander. “The DoD prioritization plan that we are following will help reduce the burden of the COVID-19 disease in high-risk populations, while mitigating the risk to ongoing military operations.”

Members of the 81st MDG have provided COVID-19 assistance to the Armed Forces Retirement Home throughout the pandemic, through testing for the virus and now administering the vaccine to prevent future spread. The Keesler Medical Center has been the forerunner in the fight against COVID-19 on the Gulf Coast by being one of the few hospitals in the Air Force to have a rapid platform for COVID-19 testing for members of Team Keesler and community partners at the Armed Forces Retirement Home.

“This is a beautiful example of a time when the Air Force sees a need in the area and pulls together to meet that need,” Neaves said. “Keesler's leadership saw a need for a high-risk population in the area. To my knowledge, the residents of the retirement home have been living in isolation and have not been able to leave the facility or have any friends or family members visit them for the last 10 months due to the COVID-19 threat. This vaccine provides them with a hope not only for their health, but also for their overall well-being.”