USDA Vaccination Heroes Do Their Part for America
The U.S. is grappling with a national emergency. As of April 5, more than 560,000 Americans have died because of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2. To combat the spread of the virus, a national strategy was developed to get vaccines distributed as quickly as possible. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is leading the effort to administer doses at community vaccination centers across the country, and they identified veterinarians as one of the groups that could perform inoculations, making them “Vaccination Heroes.
Chief Public Health Veterinarian Dr. Kis Robertson Hale of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) explains how the Agency became involved in the initiative. “FEMA activated Emergency Support Function #11, which protects agricultural and natural resources in a national emergency and is led by USDA. On Feb. 9, then-Acting FSIS Administrator (now Deputy Administrator) Terri Nintemann sent an all-employee email calling for Vaccination Heroes, volunteers with clinical training, to support vaccination efforts in Nevada, Oklahoma and Maryland, the states that requested federal support. FSIS leadership was very supportive of this initiative from the beginning,” she said.
To date, USDA has deployed more than 749 personnel, 29 of whom were FSIS employees, including a microbiologist, a consumer safety inspector, and up to 13 veterinarians at a given time. FSIS program areas represented have included Office of Public Health Science (OPHS); the Office of Policy and Program Development; the Office of Investigation, Enforcement and Audit; the Office of Employee Experience and Development; and the Office of Field Operations (OFO). Volunteers must be vaccinated (and will be provided with the vaccine if they have not already been vaccinated), be able to serve up to 30 days, and expect to work up to 12 hours a day. They also would receive vaccine-specific training, although they are clinically trained already.
OPHS’ Applied Epidemiology Staff (AES) Director Dr. Sheryl Shaw, a 21-year USDA employee, is staffing a site at the Oklahoma Public Health District. In 14 days, Shaw personally administered more than 1,297 vaccinations to 50-150 people each day. She said, “I wanted to help get the vaccine into the arms of people by ‘vaccinating America’ to increase community immunity and to end the pandemic.”
On Feb. 22 in another email, Nintemann called for “veterinarians, veterinary technicians and other skilled medical professionals, who may not have previously volunteered because they cannot travel overnight or commit to a 30-day deployment,” to volunteer to staff a drive-through vaccination center in Waldorf, Maryland, approximately 45 minutes from FSIS Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The commitment for these Vaccination Heroes was more flexible. At the peak, 13 employees have staffed this location.
OFO District Veterinary Medical Specialist in the Chicago District Dr. Kelly Welin staffed the Maryland site. She said, “I volunteered because I wanted to help officials get the public vaccinated as quickly as possible, so people are protected. Standing on pavement all day long is not the most comfortable thing to do, but car after car brings people who are eager and excited to get the vaccine and are so grateful of all the personnel that are making it possible.”
FSIS employees are devoted to public health, but also to supporting each other. While volunteers are on the frontlines helping to save American lives, their colleagues are helping cover their food safety duties.
Welin said of her teammates, “I feel so fortunate to have colleagues who are covering for me and continuing to provide the Chicago District with exceptional service. I may be the one that is deployed, but my co-workers are making it possible for me to step away without creating a gap in coverage.”
Shaw expressed the same sentiment about her staff. She said, “The AES team is awesome and is doing a great job of holding down the fort. Others on the AES team are also deployed, so those holding down the fort are covering double and triple normal duties.”
Since February 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health entities have recommended that Americans can better protect themselves from the deadly virus if they wear face masks/coverings, social distance and wash hands frequently. Based on recommendations for the meat and poultry industry, FSIS also required inspection personnel to wear face shields while on the slaughter and processing floors. While these protocols are still being practiced today, FSIS is doing its part to help protect over 330 million Americans from COVID-19, while also continuing to carry out the Agency’s food safety mission.
Visit www.usda.gov/coronavirus for more information on how USDA is responding to COVID-19 pandemic.