EL RENO — When he enlisted last year, National Guard Spc. Trevor Ford never envisioned he’d spend his days helping his state and community respond to a deadly pandemic.
Ford, a former oil field worker, said he was about halfway through training as a medic last year when he realized that there was a good chance he’d be involved in his home state’s pandemic response.
On a recent winter morning, dressed in fatigues, Ford sat a table giving Oklahomans their first injection of the Pfizer vaccine.
The Yukon resident’s life has become something of a routine the past few weeks. He typically spends three days a week in Enid and two in El Reno.
From 8 a.m. to noon each day, he gives COVID-19 shots at public health vaccination pods. Then he moves to the local county health department where he administers COVID-19 tests to dozens of Oklahomans from 2 to 4 p.m.
He said Oklahomans’ reactions to his appearance are often “very, very mixed.” Some are excited to see someone in uniform helping out while others have questioned his qualifications.
“One of the reasons I got into the Army was to help people, especially as a medic, so this is exactly what I signed up for,” he said.
For almost a year now, the state’s National Guard has been a key part of Oklahoma’s pandemic response strategy, performing tasks such as staffing the state’s COVID-19 testing locations, driving samples to labs for processing, and more recently helping run its vaccination sites.
“We consider them what we call in the military a force multiplier,” said Keith Reed, deputy commissioner of health. “They have enabled us to increase our workforce such that we can do more testing, we can do more vaccinations.”
Since Sept. 11, 2001, Oklahoma’s National Guard has traditionally faced year-plus deployments overseas. But as Oklahoma’s COVID-19 crisis escalated, Gov. Kevin Stitt in March 2020 tapped the National Guard to help.
Now approaching the one-year anniversary, the Guard’s deployment is shaping up to likely be the longest in state history, said Col. Robert Walter, Oklahoma National Guard’s joint task force commander.
“We’re kind of doing pretty much a little bit of everything,” said Walter, who is responsible for coordinating domestic response. “We’ve kind of got our hands in a little bit of everything COVID-wise for the state.”
In all, there are currently 152 Guardsmen currently responding full-time to the pandemic.
About 10 guardsmen are assigned to each of Oklahoma’s 11 health districts. Because they’re typically assigned to work close to home, most are able to go home each night.
Working a long-term mission close to home is more important to many than serving overseas because their deployment is directly impacting the lives of their loved ones, neighbors and friends, Walter said.
“Being able to help Oklahomans is a pretty big deal to us,” Walter said. “We’re pretty excited about being able to help Oklahomans and make a difference. When you deploy overseas, sure you’re protecting the nation as a whole, but that doesn’t necessarily have a face like it does when you go home to those people every night.”
Walter said it costs about $1.5 million a month for the state’s National Guard’s pandemic response.
Former President Donald Trump’s administration last year paid 75% of the costs. The state was responsible for the rest, though it was allowed to use federal coronavirus aid to pay for it, Walter said. President Joe Biden administration has pledged to pay 100% of the costs through Sept. 30, Walter said.
Lt. Matthew Miller serves as an officer in charge of the second health district, and supervises 10 soldiers spread out across an eight-county region in west-central Oklahoma. His staff includes five embedded medics who are able to administer vaccines and perform COVID-19 testing in an effort to relieve some of the stress on county health departments.
While most of his soldiers live in Yukon and commute to clinics in Enid and in Grant and Major counties, Miller said two non-medics are living at Vance Air Force Base. They’re tasked with transporting the majority of the region’s vaccine supply at the start of each week to vaccination sites as well as replenishing depleted supplies midweek.
Miller was first activated in April 2020 to help with planning. He now drives hundreds of miles a day, rotating from site to site, checking on soldiers.
“I love this so much better because you get to deal with everybody out here,” he said. “You get to see people’s reactions when they’re getting the vaccines, and when they get the test. They’re just so thankful.”