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Here’s how CentCom’s COVID-19 shot-givers beat the heat in Middle East

The “Desert Medics” with the Tampa-based command administered 89,000 shots across a 20-country region where temperatures often topped 100 degrees.
Soldiers at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, fill out their vaccination cards and paperwork in May before receiving the COVID-19 vaccination as part of the 3rd Medical Command's "Operation Med Spear. "
Soldiers at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, fill out their vaccination cards and paperwork in May before receiving the COVID-19 vaccination as part of the 3rd Medical Command's "Operation Med Spear. " [ STAFF SGT. NEIL W. MCCABE | U.S. Army ]
Published Sep. 23
Updated Sep. 23

By Davis Winkie, Army Times

It’s really hard to keep things really cold in a really hot place.

That was the first and most urgent issue facing Army Maj. Thomas Hudspeth when he learned he would be the logistical architect of the effort to administer COVID-19 vaccines to troops deployed across U.S. Central Command.

CentCom, based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, directs operations in 20 countries from North Africa to Central Asia. There are a half-dozen U.S. bases in Kuwait alone, where temperatures reach 112 in June.

The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine has to be stored at -4 degrees Fahrenheit, which “was a constraint,” Hudspeth told Army Times during a Tuesday media roundtable.

So the medical logistics officer, who was once a science teacher, had his soldiers design and conduct experiments. Their assignment: find out how to maintain a cold chain to prevent the vaccines from spoiling.

The Herculean logistical effort by Hudspeth and the 3rd Medical Command, nicknamed the “Desert Medics,” were deemed a success. They administered more than 89,000 vaccines between January and July, according to Maj. Jeff Gruidl, a spokesperson for the unit.

“If a service member was administered a COVID vaccine in theater, (our unit) was responsible for safely distributing, tracking and ensuring the vaccine was recorded,” said Col. Jennifer Marrast-Host, who commanded the deployed contingent of the 3rd Medical Command.

The effort required the command to develop new systems and processes for tracking vaccine acceptance rates across CentCom territory. One simple but key aspect of the plan was ensuring that shots in transit didn’t spend too much time out on the tarmac, Marrast-Host said.

Another key to their success was streamlining the supply chain in unprecedented ways. This included bypassing the Army’s medical logistics center in Europe in favor of using commercial carriers like FedEx to ship the vaccines directly to their destinations.

When it came to getting shots into arms, “we did mass vaccination where we were vaccinating over 700 personnel per event,” Marrast-Host said.

By the time they received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, with its less stringent temperature requirements, demand had lessened for mass vaccination.

Another challenge was thawing just the right number of Moderna vaccine vials. Each contains 10 doses and they must be used within 12 hours once punctured.

“We had a strong idea as to how many people would be coming in at a specific time,” Marrast-Host said. “At the end of the day ... we would start counting by 10.”

If the last units scheduled to receive shots didn’t have a round number to open a final vial of vaccine, she said, “we would then have those personnel report on a different day.”

As the command vaccinated more troops across the region, it began to notice a steady decline in the number of service member’s lost to COVID-19 quarantine or restriction-of-movement requirements.

“The more people were vaccinated, the less we were having outbreaks of COVID-19, which also led to less exposures (and) close contact tracing,” Marrast-Host said.

• • •

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