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AFDW, medical leaders champion vaccine rollout program

Air Force colonel administers COVID-19 vaccine to female Airman.

Lt. Col. Kirk Schlafer, M.D., FACS, 316th Medical Group attending surgeon, administers the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to Tech. Sgt. Kiani Montecillo, 316th Operation Medical Readiness Squadron medical technician and noncommissioned officer in charge of Presidential Support Program, at Joint Base Andrews, Md., Feb. 8, 2021. Montecillo and her team test over 100 members on Joint Base Andrews daily. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Logan Carlson)

Woman gives "thumbs up" while receiving COVID-19 vaccine.

Phyllis Grabowski, Air Force District of Washington secretary of the surgeon general, gives a thumbs up before receiving the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from Maj. Keith Beam, 316th Healthcare Operations Squadron flight commander, at Joint Base Andrews, Md., Feb. 8, 2021. Grabowski was one of the first members to receive the vaccine in the 75 years-and-up age range at Joint Base Andrews. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Logan Carlson)


The Air Force District of Washington vaccination program is successfully underway at Joint Base Andrews and Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling. AFDW is prepared to rapidly expand distribution capabilities as vaccine supply increases to support partner organizations, tenant units, and geographically-separated service members within the National Capital Region.

“This vaccination program is a critical addition to our current health measures that not only protect the community, but preserve the ability of our world-class Airmen to expertly carry out the mission each day,” said Maj. Gen. Ricky N. Rupp, AFDW commander. “I trust our people, processes, and the vaccine implicitly as part of our overall commitment to keeping Airmen and their families safe and healthy.”

Col. Shayne Stokes, 316th Medical Group chief of medical staff and immunologist, expressed confidence in the program, borne from a phased, risk-based prioritization in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Department of Defense guidance. While the current vaccine supply is limited, efforts are being made to increase the supply over the coming weeks.

Stokes reported that AFDW medical units will not only maintain total force support to thousands of eligible TRICARE beneficiaries within the NCR, but to the additional multitude of collocated non-Air Force and AFDW-related, geographically separated Army, Navy, and Coast Guard units. “We are working to both order vaccine supply to cover each of these units’ phased populations and then provide the vaccine as we would to any AFDW units.”

Though nascent, the vaccine program’s structure is extremely scalable and efficient, Stokes said. “Our initial run has gone very well, and as our supplies increase, we’ll ramp up accordingly and continue to fine tune our processes to make the vaccination process as patient-friendly as possible.”

Stokes said the initial vaccine distribution, Phase 1a, encompasses healthcare workers, and first responders such as medics, security forces, and fire personnel.

“We have received sufficient supply to cover our 1 Alpha population at both Joint Base Andrews and Joint Base Anacostia Bolling (D.C.) installations, and we offer it to everyone who qualifies to be vaccinated,” Stokes said. “We have also requested sufficient vaccine supply to cover our 1b population and we’ll be ready to continue vaccinating once we receive it.”

The 1b phase, Stokes explained, covers a wider swath to include beneficiaries aged 75 and up, in addition to critical national defense personnel, and frontline essential workers such as teachers, child and youth center staff, and food services and commissary staff. “The people sustaining the functions and processes that we need to survive will be next in line as soon as we get additional supply.” Stokes and his team even factored physical location into their rollout process, and as such, relocated the base’s
COVID-19 vaccination operations hub from the East Fitness Center to the former Home Traditions home goods store to meet the increased demand. “It’s a much bigger building that allows us to expand vaccine operations from a more central location on base, and vaccinate more people per hour as our supply and demand increase.”

With confidence in projected streamline supply chain and distribution processes, Stokes asserted that even if future doses arrive incrementally, his faith remains in the program’s evolution. “Ultimately, we want every eligible person who wants the vaccine to be able to get it, and we don’t want supply to be a limiting factor.”

As the vaccination campaign proliferates, Stokes also explained why the program remains voluntary.

“It is currently authorized by the (
Food and Drug Administration) under emergency use authorization,” he said. “Typically, force health protection vaccines are only mandated once they are fully licensed.”

He added that he anticipates enough data for the FDA to review the COVID-19 vaccines, and if current trends hold, that data will substantiate the safety and efficacy of the immunizations.

AFDW’s program currently distributes vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer. Both companies, he asserts, provide “overwhelmingly convincing” data indicating their efficacy and safety. “The data shows that there’s a 90-95% decrease in the risk of symptomatic COVID-19 disease after you’ve received two shots of either of those vaccines, and there were no serious safety concerns in the phase three trials.”

Real world utilization data, he said, continues to substantiate the findings, as the United States has now vaccinated more than 30 million people, with little to no serious safety concerns flagged in direct correlation to the shot in the six weeks since its launch.

Johnson & Johnson submitted an emergency use authorization request to the FDA as well, and their efficacy statistics are on par with the annual flu shot, Pneumovax (pneumonia), and chickenpox vaccines.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine appears to be “just as safe as Pfizer and Moderna, without any increased risk for side effects or adverse reactions,” Stokes said. “We’re looking forward to getting this third vaccine to offer more options and get more people vaccinated quicker.”

Stokes acknowledged the challenge of garnering trust in such short time relative to other vaccines, but insisted clinical trial level research should assure the same confidence as any medication or vaccine that has been approved and distributed for use in the United States.

“FDA and CDC rules and procedures ensure that none of the safety mechanisms in place were or will ever be eliminated from vaccine development and trials in the United States,” Stokes said.

In light of the tens of millions globally who have been vaccinated, combined with the tens of thousands who have vaccinated in clinical trials, Stokes said the data illuminates the side effect profile of the doses.

“It is fairly common to get a sore arm, some body aches, even some fevers for one to two days, and the clinical trial data shows about 20% of people got those symptoms,” Stokes said.

But those statistics, he explained, are not in and of themselves concerning.

“They actually are evidence that your body is mounting a normal, healthy, vigorous immune response to the vaccine, which equates to high levels of protective immunity.”

Stokes recommends enrollment in the CDC’s smartphone friendly, online registry at
www.vsafe.cdc.gov, which he said allows people to report symptoms, and provides a clear site picture to help medical professionals immediately identify atypical side effects or symptoms. Service members and their families can also call the Tricare nurse advice line.

Medical treatment facilities, Stokes explained, will send vaccine availability notifications to eligible beneficiaries by way of the TRICARE Online Patient Portal, as well as post phase and eligibility updates on the 316th Medical Wing/Malcolm Grow Facebook page (https://m.facebook.com/pg/MalcolmGrow/posts/).

Though Stokes recommends service members and their families take the first vaccine possible as they qualify by their current phase, he still urges Airmen and their families to vigilantly slow the spread of the virus by wearing appropriate masks, practicing social distancing and hand-washing.

Stokes, COVID-19 survivor himself, said his crusade to encourage the vaccine stems from “unquestionable data” that it not only lowers personal risk of getting COVID-19 disease, but protects others and can stanch the virus spread.

“I look at it as a civic duty, as a kindness gesture to my friends and neighbors to get vaccinated myself,” Stokes said. “The vaccine is a medical miracle that our scientists, doctors, immunologists, and manufacturing companies have been able to develop in such a short period of time with incredibly high safety and efficacy.”

But his final reason, he said, is perhaps most compelling.

“It’s the only way to recovery, period -- drop the mic, done,” he asserted. “Until we get enough people vaccinated, our country, our world, are not going to recover from this plague.”


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