FORT BELVOIR, Va., –
Army Col. Anthony Bostick so convinced Defense Health Agency officials of the Defense Logistics Agency’s expertise in distributing supplies around the globe that DHA asked for more than just one DLA rep to help plan the Defense Department’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
“Starting out, it was just me here, but folks quickly recognized DLA has a lot to bring to the table and requested additional support,” said Bostick, a DLA veterinarian advisor so engrained in vaccination planning headed by DHA that he’s worked at its headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, since late October.
The DLA presence at DHA grew into a five-person team including Bostick; Army Col. Robb Meert and Navy Cmdr. Chuck Mielkie from DLA Distribution; and Air Force Maj. Sharon Large, Miriam Alonso and Steve Shea from DLA Logistics Operations. Though Bostick said they’ve become a tight-knit family that likes to joke around, the team’s long, hectic workdays – and weekends – reflect only staunch determination to save lives.
“People who haven’t received the vaccine are still dying, and the more doses DLA can help DOD get to hard-to-reach locations, the more people we can protect,” Bostick said.
DOD’s overarching plan for vaccine distribution includes a two-prong approach with DHA overseeing orders and manufacturer deliveries for service members, families and some civilian employees in the U.S. DLA is receiving, packing, shipping and tracking vaccines for individuals outside the continental U.S. or deployed with the U.S. Navy Fleet.
DLA employees were already involved in Operation Warp Speed, an early public-private partnership that facilitated the development and initial distribution strategies for COVID-19 vaccines, when DHA became the lead for DOD’s rollout. DLA employees subsequently assigned to DHA helped military health professionals understand distribution complexities.
“DHA is not a logistics organization and this is clearly a logistics problem,” Shea said. “Even as a logistician, I’m not used to planning for a minus 20- or minus 80-degrees Celsius vaccine that needs to be shipped to customers around the world. It’s just not something we typically do.”
He and Bostick designed a tabletop exercise for DLA to apply its processes for distributing annual flu vaccines to the COVID-19 vaccine, which is being shipped in multiple batches to match phased inoculations instead of a single bulk shipment that meets an area’s total needs. The exercise led to two rehearsal-of-concept drills that allowed DLA to refine internal and customer processes. The outcomes informed the guidance DLA shared with DHA on the importance of accurate customer forecasts and advance ordering so distribution teams can allocate space on aircraft and coordinate deliveries with someone being on the other end to receive them.
DHA staff also leaned on DLA employees’ experience in joint planning, Large said.
“DHA is a fairly young agency, having been created in 2013, so they relied on our experience with things like setting up communications structures and connecting with logistics teams at combatant commands and other entities that needed to be involved with distribution,” she said.
Large also used her background as a battle captain for DLA’s Agency Synchronization and Operations Center to help link DHA to other DOD operations centers and create tools for tracking requests for information.
“It was a unique experience to put that effort in and do behind-the-scenes work that may not have had the actual DLA stamp though it was part of us being members of a joint team,” she added.
Rising doses for DOD
As DOD expects the doses it has available to rise this month from an average of 155,500 to 390,000 a week – about 14% of which are slated for overseas delivery by DLA – the team is ensuring seamless logistics support to OCONUS populations that still need the vaccine.
“With this sharp increase, we want to ensure we’re able to move them in the right directions just as quickly as we’ve been moving doses since our first shipment in December,” DLA Distribution’s Navy Cmdr. Chuck Mielkie said.
Bostick and Meert stressed that DLA’s success in vaccine distribution is a result of tireless efforts from employees across DLA who’ve worked issues like customs clearance and Congressional inquiries, as well as those who’ve carefully assembled boxes for shipping with temperature control devices and thermal packaging.
“The end user wouldn’t think of the things we’ve had to account for, and there’s a group of folks at DLA Distribution who just haven’t slept since the vaccine started flowing,” Meert said.
Cold chain management
Even before DLA and DHA began coordinating DOD’s plan, DLA enhanced its cold-chain capabilities by purchasing additional refrigerated trailers and installing freezers in sites such as DLA Distribution Sigonella, Italy.
“So many of these things had to be done preemptively because if we’d waited until the requirements were relayed, we’d have been too late building the necessary capacity,” Meert added.
He described employees so dedicated to the mission they worked nonstandard jobs to ensure success.
“When we had that horrible winter storm in February and the base was shut down at Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, the crew ran a snowplow from the gate to the medical warehouse and back again just to keep that lane open for shipping,” Meert continued. “They did it because they felt it was the right thing to do.”
Several team members compared vaccine distribution and support to DHA to working in operational environments such as those in Afghanistan and Kuwait.
“The medical and logistics side of the house really could make a difference in someone’s life. That’s the rewarding part of the mission,” Bostick said. “It’s hard to take a day off knowing there’s work that needs to be done and lives to be saved.”