How the Air Force is playing a key role in the fight against COVID-19

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It is an air force deployed against COVID-19.

“We’ve transported thousands of vials of vaccine,” says Brigadier General Ed Phelka of the United States Civil Air Patrol.

“We can take advantage of the use of over five thousand general aviation airports across the country and distribute vaccines to rural areas that would take dozens of hours to drive to, or don’t even have commercial air service.”

The Civil Air Patrol, known as the C.A.P, is using its aircraft to distribute vaccines to rural and isolated areas so more people can be vaccinated faster. The C.A.P. is an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force and was established on the eve of World War Two as a way to strengthen our country’s civil defense. Now it is fighting another type of war, against an invisible and deadly enemy.

FILE: Pharmacist Diana Swiga fills a dead volume syringe with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination.

FILE: Pharmacist Diana Swiga fills a dead volume syringe with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination.

COVID-19 has created the need for the agency’s largest mobilization since its founding. As of early this month, C.A.P. pilots flew more than 649 sorties in its small aircraft, mostly single-engine Cessnas, delivering more than 7,200 vials of coronavirus vaccines to hard-to-reach places. The C.A.P. can rely on 560 airplanes and 60,000 volunteers for the effort.

“They’re patriotic Americans who take great pride in helping their fellow countrymen, so we have never had to refuse a mission because of lack of personnel. Our volunteers step forward and happily take on these missions, and they do so proudly being of service to their community, state and nation as it is a big part of what we do as Civil Air Patrol volunteers,” says the General.

One grateful health system helped by the Civil Air Patrol flights is the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians in Northern Michigan.

Inter-Tribal Council Dr. Terry Samuels told us when the first vaccines were first flown in by the C.A.P, the reaction was “sort of like winning the Super Bowl. Everyone was jumping up and down on the health care team, and the health department was very excited.”

Native American tribes have been devastated by the pandemic, and the deliveries brought desperate relief.

“To see the vaccines roll out and then to actually get them was a tremendous boost to our efforts as well as our community, as you know, providing some hope after a very long time with waiting for the vaccines to be developed and waiting for the vaccinations to be implemented, the Native American community has been hit so hard,” Dr. Samuels says.


“We’ve transported vaccine from northern Minnesota to the upper peninsula of Michigan, which is a terrific mission because it was dozens of hours to drive from where the vaccine needed,” says General Phelka.

“It’s very safe. It’s very efficient and very effective.”

Dr. Samuels says with 5,000 Odawa tribal members, and neighboring tribes like the Chippawa Indian community and others, the coronavirus virus positivity rate has been as high as 10%. That makes the air deliveries more crucial.

“We typically have a much higher incidence and prevalence of chronic disease, which causes that much increased risk of poor outcomes with the type of illness, in particular COVID-19. Additionally, our social units are different. For example, we don’t just live in a nuclear type household. Very often we live with our extended families, grandmas and grandpas, grandchildren all living together. So, it’s a bit more difficult to quarantine and isolate for many of our native folks,” notes Dr. Samuels.

“Our culture is very social. We have many gatherings and celebrations. All of that has been on hold for quite some time now. So, our hope is that we can get back to that.”

“When we do arrive,” says General Phelka, “it’s a happy time to us. Public health service usually will be the person that greets us and they take the vaccine quickly to where it’s needed.”

“The best thing provided is hope, hope that we’re going to come out of this, hope that we’re going to conquer this pandemic,” says Dr. Samuels.


The C.A.P. says it will continue to fly in that hope to isolated communities and will continue until Covid-19 is finally defeated.

Ben Evansky contributed to this report.

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