The Defense Logistics Agency is helping military health officials prepare for a surge in COVID-19 vaccinations available to the Defense Department starting this month.
The department expects to begin receiving about 390,000 doses weekly — up from an average of 155,500 a week — with DLA continuing to receive, pack, ship and track vaccines for individuals outside the continental U.S. or deployed with the Navy, said Army Col. Anthony Bostick, head of DLA's operational planning team for vaccine operations.
Although DOD officials paused the administration of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine on April 13, upon recommendations from federal officials due to reports of rare and severe blood clots, he said the impact should be temporary and minimal as planners shift allocations and shipments to fill potential voids.
"These are among various modifications we've made to the DOD plan supporting worldwide vaccine distribution," Bostick said. "As manufacturers make more doses available or new vaccines are developed, we continue to adjust our plan so more DOD personnel and their dependents can be vaccinated."
By April 15, DLA had shipped over 415,000 Moderna and J&J vaccine doses to DOD vaccination sites in 35 countries. About 15% of those doses were delivered through intermediate distribution facilities in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, where DLA employees refresh packaging components to maintain proper temperatures. From there, shipments are scheduled for onward movement to treatment facilities and clinics using local transportation assets including FedEx.
"Since fall 2020, DLA representatives have been embedded in the DOD COVID-19 Vaccine Operational Planning Team, which has worked extensively to leverage interagency partnerships to plan, execute and track vaccine shipments to more than 89 military treatment facilities and fleet sites overseas," said Air Force Col. Jennifer Garrison, the Department of Homeland Security's deputy chief of combatant command operational support.
DHA requested DLA's help creating a distribution plan in October and has relied on DLA's 20 years of experience distributing annual flu vaccines.
"DLA has been doing cold-chain management for years, and the reason nobody talked about it is because we've been so good at it. And it worked because we were able to plan against a known requirement year after year," said Army Col. Robb Meert the director of DLA distribution operations.
DLA plans COVID-19 vaccine shipments according to orders placed by the services, which receive requirements from combatant commands and verify allotments through a DOD allocation board. Meert said DLA leaders have stressed to DHA officials the need for accurate forecasting of doses and locations in each phase of vaccine administration, because that data allows distribution teams to designate space on aircraft and coordinate deliveries so someone is on the other end to receive them.
Though scheduling manufacturer deliveries of the vaccine to U.S. locations has its own complexities, Meert said overseas deliveries are harder to project and execute, especially as new delivery routes are established.
Overseas shipments managed by DLA often require a combination of commercial and military flights, added Steve Shea, with DLA logistics operations. While shipping to major installations like Camp Humphreys in South Korea, or Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, can be relatively simple once local officials have determined needs, getting the vaccine to Djibouti or Kenya can be difficult with temperature constraints, he said.
Getting the vaccine through customs is also a challenge in countries that don't yet recognize them as valid, Shea continued. DLA employees resolved customs clearance issues at 43 locations in 17 countries during its first week of distribution in mid-December as many countries shut down for the holidays.
"The COVID-19 operations team at DLA distribution has leveraged relationships from previous tours overseas, many times calling old coworkers still at [overseas] headquarters offices to see how they could grease the skids to make this work," Meert said. "We've also worked directly with DLA's foreign political advisor, embassies and combatant commands to keep things moving."
DLA started partnering with military treatment facilities and organizations like the U.S. Transportation Command and FedEx in the fall of 2020 to obtain special shipping containers and ensure customers had freezers ready for maintaining vaccines' cold temperatures.
As DOD's leading logistics agency, DLA has been involved in the nation's pandemic response since February 2020 and has provided over $3.5 billion in items ranging from face masks and ventilators to test kits for DOD customers, as well as federal partners like the Department of Health and Human Services and Federal Emergency Management Agency.