Army Reserve Col. April Myrick, front left, and Col. Ali K. Sonmez, second from left in back, stand with Army, Army Reserve, Air Force, Navy and U.S. Public Health Service members at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Chamblee Campus in Atlanta in February. The members work together as part of U.S. government efforts to deliver more than 300 million doses of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines throughout the country. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Reserve)
Army Reserve officers bring expertise to nationwide vaccine distribution
by Sgt. 1st Class Corey L. Beal, U.S. Army Reserve Strategic Communications
The incredibly complex task of delivering more than 300 million doses of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines has brought together multiple government agencies, civilian enterprises and health care departments down to the local level.
Helping to meet this challenge are six Army Reserve officers who used their civilian and military expertise to serve as vaccine planners and DOD liaisons to federal regions across the U.S. Operating from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention in Atlanta, each Soldier is teamed with a CDC regional coordinator and project officer to assist their jurisdictions in vaccine distribution.
Army Reserve Col. Ali K. Sonmez is the vaccine planner and DOD liaison officer for Region 10, the geographical area that includes Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. “It’s hard to really get an appreciation of the enormity of this task,” said Sonmez. “Getting the vaccine and getting it to the jurisdictions is just part of the battle—the real difficult part is getting it into the people.”
To achieve this goal, the liaisons collect and share information, assist regions in planning, advocate on behalf of the jurisdictions and help them overcome obstacles and challenges. In addition, the liaisons work together to troubleshoot and head off issues.
This includes answering a lot of hard questions.
“Who needs to get it first and how are they going to get it?” asked Sonmez. “How is it going to be done? Who is going to administer it? How will it get reported and tracked? Where is it going to be set up—in a particular spot or do we create mobile clinics that go out to where people are?”
Solutions vary from region to region, said Army Reserve Col. April Myrick, who serves as a vaccine planner and DOD liaison officer to Region 7, which includes Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.
“There is no cookie cutter answer,” said Myrick. “Every jurisdiction is different.”
“We have 50 states and they all have autonomy,” said Sonmez. “Health care is really a state function, so we’ve had to figure out how the federal government layers into that, to provide the assistance and guidance needed, so the states can execute and vaccinate their population—and do it in a way that is fair and equitable.”
Some variables include population densities, pharmacy programs and the structure of the state’s health care system. Dealing with these many considerations and coordinating between such a wide array of organizations means that Army Reserve Soldiers, who can draw on experience from both their military and civilian careers, are the perfect selection to fill such compound roles.
Myrick, a member of the 335th Signal Command (Theater), has been in the health care industry since 1986 and now works as a consultant in health care information technology.
“I started my military career as a pharmacy technician. My background from the civilian side has continued to be in the health care industry,” said Myrick. “I’m also a certified program manager, so developing plans and planning for a major project, and being able to understand health care applications and systems, are skills I brought with me.”
Sonmez, also a member of the 335th Signal Command (Theater) and a senior director of product management in the telecommunications industry, said his experience allowed him to serve as a bridge between the CDC and the jurisdictions.
“My job on the civilian side is project management, where you kind of have your foot in each side of a business,” said Sonmez. “You have one foot in the technical side, where you have to understand your product, and then you have your other foot in the sales and marketing side.” Their military experiences have been equally instrumental.
“As a leader in the Army, you have to be able to effectively communicate with people who hear you in different ways, so you have to learn over time how to communicate with everyone,” said Sonmez. “We’ve learned to focus on the essential tasks, develop courses of action and move quickly. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of time. We’ve been able to filter through the noise and get to the essence of what is absolutely needed.”
For these Army Reserve officer, it was their experiences and capabilities that qualified them for this assignment, but it was their commitment to the country that compelled them to fill it.
“I chose to volunteer for this assignment,” said Myrick. “I knew it was something that was going to help the nation and I felt like my civilian experience and leadership experience in the Army Reserve gave me the skills needed to support this mission.”
Sonmez saw this as a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“For me, it was an opportunity to work on something that directly impacts the welfare of our country—our people,” said Sonmez. “This is a once-in-a-100-year pandemic, so it’s an opportunity to help us get through this complex public health emergency. In some small way, I was a part of the solution.”