To Vaccinate America, Look to Veterans

David W. Callaway

America’s military veterans have long been on the frontlines: it’s time to mobilize them to help end this pandemic

When President Biden released a national strategy to combat COVID-19 and announced that our nation was on “war footing,” we veterans of America could not agree more. It is time that we as a nation move forward with urgency and purpose. To start, we must acknowledge several realities.

The first is that vaccines don’t save lives; vaccinations save lives. Just as a rifle is of little use in a battle without training and ammunition, vaccines are useless sitting on a shelf. In order to be effective, we need to vaccinate as many as 260 million Americans. But, as recently as this month, 30 to 45% of American adults report they are unwilling to get the COVID vaccination, even after 11 months of death and destruction. To overcome this “vaccine hesitancy” we must win hearts and minds; convincing people that vaccines are the key to winning the war against COVID-19.

Veterans will be critical to this trust campaign. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans trust our military and veteran communities more than politicians, CEOs, and even scientists—they trust the military more than any other group. Partly, this is because we veterans come from all walks of life; are of all religions, creeds, and races; and bring together the experiences of diverse geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds. We are “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” We are your neighbors. We are people who took an oath to serve our country, then returned to our hometowns, where we are finding ways to serve again.

A Team Rubicon volunteer at the Maricopa County, AZ, vaccination site.

Once people believe, we need to be able to execute “last-mile logistics” and get shots into arms. For the last several weeks, we have watched the nation struggle with a vaccination strategy and its execution. To get 260 million Americans vaccinated, we need to set a clear, bold mission and build teams with expertise in logistics, operations management, messaging, personnel management, and coordination of frontline units. Our nation’s veterans understand the importance of planning, they respect process and are experts at managing unexpected changes. Importantly, given their education, training, and experience, veterans have a unique ability to execute complex, large-scale operations. Across the nation, veterans are positioned well to both lead and support these vaccination coalitions.

Finally, we must mobilize a massive workforce that is ready to step into the arena. Health systems and hospitals are straining, their staff exhausted. And, our chronically under-resourced public health system is in no state to execute a vaccination campaign at this scale. Yet there is a cohort of the American public capable of swiftly and efficiently helping millions of Americans get vaccinated: our veterans.

To “surge the health care workforce to support the vaccination effort,” as the new National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness directs, we will need to tap into a new health care labor pool. That health care provider pool must include veteran and civilian volunteers. An advanced degree is not necessary to register people, transport vaccinations, set up vaccination stations, do traffic control, or organize and manage volunteers. A medical degree or nursing license is not needed to administer vaccinations.

Veterans Paul Milositz (left) and Sam Brokenshire discuss the management of volunteers and procedures to be taken if any patient has a reaction to the COVID-19 vaccine at an Arizona vaccination site.

It’s time to call our veterans to service again, whether by enabling veteran medics to give the vaccine or by relying on veteran organizations—such as ours—to deploy veteran volunteers to provide the wraparound services of vaccination clinics. By enlisting these competent professionals, we can massively scale our nation’s public health and healthcare resources, allowing our physicians and nurses to concentrate on the services that they can uniquely deliver. Veterans stand at the ready. So much so that recently six veteran organizations united to form the Veterans Coalition for Vaccination. Its mission: To mobilize veteran volunteers to ensure equitable access to vaccinations for all Americans, regardless of geographic or socioeconomic limitations.

We cannot succumb to analysis paralysis. We cannot afford to waste any more time with politics. The time has come to execute on this mission. The United States has only 4% of the global population, but it has 25% of the world’s 100 million COVID cases. We are in a race to reach herd immunity before the virus mutates further and potentially becomes far more deadly. We must act with purpose and urgency. And, there are few in the world who know the danger of a rapidly evolving enemy more intimately than our military veterans.

This is a time for unity. We, at Team Rubicon, the veteran-led disaster response organization, believe it is time to look beyond the expected and traditional models and take bold, aggressive action to vaccinate America. If we are to scale the nation’s vaccination efforts, it’s time to enlist the services of the people Americans trust most: our military veterans and the organizations that can deploy them. We, and they, understand that any efforts, talent, efficiencies, and people that we can bring to this fight will save lives, speed our recovery, and restore much-needed hope and resilience to America now.

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