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Military Personnel Delivering COVID-19 Vaccines At FEMA Sites

Female service member in face mask and shield speaks to a man sitting down.
Master Sgt. Holly Roberts-Davis/U.S. Air Force
Tech Sgt. Jerrica Wild is one of 2,400 service members stationed at more than a dozen COVID-19 vaccination sites around the U.S.

Service members say they never expected when they signed up that they would one day have to fight a pandemic at home. They say they're proud to help people get their shots.

As states try to ramp up vaccinations for COVID-19 and expand eligibility, some, including Florida, have asked for federal help. In response, FEMA has tapped the military for the mission.

Inside a large white tent at the Tampa Greyhound Track, Air Force medical technician Linzie Avalos stood at a folding table in her camo uniform and boots prepping some needles for the crowds of people lined up to get their shots.

Since early March, the race track has been home to the city’s FEMA vaccination site, one of four receiving military support in Florida.

Woman with a face shield labeled with her last name Avalos prepares to give someone a shot.
Master Sgt. Holly Roberts-Davis/U.S. Air Force
Airman Linzie Avalos says the FEMA vaccination site has definitely been an unusual first deployment, but the gratitude from people she is immunizing is making it memorable.

Avalos greeted a man and a woman who sat down at her station, asking them if they had any COVID-19 symptoms recently and whether they would prefer the Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Both chose the latter.

This is Avalos' first deployment. She said 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.

“When I said I was deploying my parents immediately thought, “Oh, you’re going to Afghanistan,’” she said. “This is definitely a stateside humanitarian deployment.”

But Avalos said the assignment is no vacation. She works long days at the Tampa site, administering about 150 shots a day.

She told the man sitting at her station to relax his arm and counted to three before injecting him with his shot. He had to confirm she did it because he barely felt a thing.

The man thanked her and walked away rubbing tears from his eyes.

Maj. Michael Jessup helps oversee the operation and said that kind of emotional reaction is common.

“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 see their grandchildren,” he said.

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

“Obviously when you're overseas, you have other things to worry about, your safety, and here everybody is so welcoming and they're excited that we're here,” she said.

Woman in camo and an orange vest makes a hand signal.
Master Sgt. Holly Roberts-Davis/U.S. Air Force
Capt. Stephanie McIlwraith gestures for a patient to come into the observation tent after they received their COVID-19 vaccine. She says the organization of the military makes it a good fit to help with mass vaccinations.

The Pentagon said so far 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 are providing staff and infrastructure to help communities immunize as many people as possible, as fast as possible.

Capt. Stephanie McIlwraith said the armed services are well-suited for this kind of mission.

“The military is a very organized thing, just kind of the chain of command, the leadership,” she explained. “We've got people from all over the country coming together to make this happen, whether they are in the vaccine tent or, you know, doing traffic coming in, it really is a whole team concept.”

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 in neighboring Pinellas County. McIlwraith was able to vaccinate her grandmother and aunt inside the tent.

The last time they were together was for her mothers’ funeral last year. Because of coronavirus restrictions, McIlwraith didn't get to say goodbye in-person.

“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 we're taking that one step closer to getting our families back to normal is a really great feeling,” she said.

The Department of Defense said 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.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.