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Military Medics Tapped To Ramp Up Vaccine Rollout

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Across the country, states are trying to ramp up vaccinations for COVID-19 as they expand eligibility. Some have asked the federal government for help, and in response, FEMA has tapped the military for the mission. Earlier this month, Air Force, Army and Navy personnel were stationed at four vaccination sites in Florida. Stephanie Colombini from member station WUSF went to one of the sites in Tampa and talked to service members about their unexpected assignment.

STEPHANIE COLOMBINI, BYLINE: Inside a large white tent at a racetrack in Tampa, Air Force medical technician Linzie Avalos stands at a folding table in her camo uniform and boots, prepping some needles for the crowds of people lined up to get their shots. A man and woman sit down at her station.

LINZIE AVALOS: I'm Airman Avalos. I'll be giving you your vaccine today. Have either of you had any COVID symptoms in the last 10 days?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No.

AVALOS: OK. I'm going to get you both scanned in.

COLOMBINI: This is Avalos's first deployment. She says she never imagined when she enlisted over a year ago she'd be giving civilians shots in Florida and spending her days off at the beach.

AVALOS: When I said I was deploying, my parents immediately thought, are you going to Afghanistan? This is definitely a stateside humanitarian deployment.

COLOMBINI: But Avalos says the assignment's no vacation. She works long days at the Tampa site, administering about 150 shots a day.

AVALOS: All right. Make sure this arm's nice and relaxed. One, two, three. Good job.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Did you do it?

COLOMBINI: Yeah. You didn't feel a thing, huh?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Not a thing.

COLOMBINI: The man thanked her and walked away, rubbing tears from his eyes. Major Michael Jessup helps oversee the operation and says that kind of emotional reaction is common.

MICHAEL JESSUP: I can understand where that comes from. We actually had an elderly couple in here not too long ago. They were super-excited and tearful at the fact that they finally get to go see their grandchildren.

COLOMBINI: The positivity is a welcome change from past deployments for Tech Sergeant Jerrica Wild. She has seen combat as a medic in Afghanistan.

JERRICA WILD: Obviously when you're overseas, you have other things that you worry about - your safety. And here, everybody's so welcoming, and they're excited that we're here.

COLOMBINI: The Pentagon says about 2,400 service members from all branches of the military are supporting more than a dozen vaccination sites in places like New York, California, Ohio and the U.S. Virgin Islands. They're providing staff and infrastructure to help communities immunize as many people as possible as fast as possible. Captain Stephanie McIlwraith says the armed services are well-suited for this kind of mission.

STEPHANIE MCILWRAITH: The military's a very organized thing - just kind of the chain of command, the leadership. We've got people from all around the country who are coming together to make this happen, whether they're in the vaccine tent or they are, you know, doing traffic coming in. It's a whole-team concept.

COLOMBINI: McIlwraith is a nurse at the Tampa site. She and her team come from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, but her family lives in the area. McIlwraith was able to vaccinate her grandmother and aunt inside the tent. The last time they were together was for her mother's funeral last year. Because of coronavirus restrictions, McIlwraith didn't get to say goodbye in person.

MCILWRAITH: Even though my mom didn't have COVID-19, she was impacted by the pandemic. So it's been a full circle thing because it really - bringing this community back, knowing that we're taking that one step closer to getting our families back to normal is a really great feeling.

COLOMBINI: The Department of Defense says requests are coming in for help from other states. The troops on the ground say they're ready to serve as long as it takes to vaccinate everyone who needs it. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Colombini in Tampa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.