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'This is our duty': Coast Guard Academy superintendent gets vaccine

As Journey’s “Separate Ways” played in the background, Rear Adm. Bill Kelly, superintendent of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, rolled up his sleeve and got his first shot of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.

“This is our duty,” Kelly said Tuesday morning as he sat for his 15-minute observation period in the academy’s Leamy Hall. “We’re a humanitarian service and getting the vaccine is part of our duty to provide not only protection to ourselves but that umbrella of protection that we’re going to provide this Coast Guard Academy community and by extension our broader community.”

He was among more than 400 academy personnel, including leadership officials, faculty and staff, and coaches, expected to get vaccinated Tuesday. Of those offered the vaccine, 91% opted to take it, Kelly said.

Getting the vaccine is voluntary at this point, given it's only authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use.

The academy has received two shipments of the Pfizer vaccine so far, each containing 975 doses. The Department of Homeland Security, which the academy falls under, has its own vaccination plan and supply separate from the general public.

The academy's medical staff already has administered first doses of the vaccine to about 400 operational personnel stationed on Coast Guard ships and at units in Connecticut and Long Island, N.Y. On Wednesday, officer candidates based at the academy will begin getting inoculated.

As is true for other vaccine administrators, the academy's medical staff has worked behind the scenes to piece together an intricate plan to inoculate hundreds of personnel — everything from prioritizing and scheduling who gets the vaccine first to timing the thawing of the Pfizer doses, which are stored in an ultra-cold freezer on the academy’s campus.

“There’s quite a logistics tale to administering these vaccines,” said Capt. Will Smith, the academy’s chief of mission support, who has helped oversee the vaccine administration.

Readying the vaccine to be injected into someone's arm, alone, requires a delicate process.

“Taking (the doses) out of the ultra-cold storage at -80 degrees Fahrenheit and putting them into a refrigerator or a normal freezer, that starts a six-day clock, and then when you actually thaw and reconstitute it, that’s a six-hour window that you have to use it,” said Smith, adding that there's usually five doses in each vial.

He said he doesn't yet know when the academy will get its next vaccine shipment.

The goal is to have all 1,061 cadets, who returned to campus in early January and will start in-person classes on Feb. 1, fully vaccinated by mid-May, Kelly said, with priority given to those who are going out to the fleet this summer.

In the meantime, the academy has ramped up its COVID-19 testing program and now will be testing all cadets twice per week.

"We see 400 people getting the vaccine today, but we're not taking our masks off. We're not backing down on testing. We're not backing down on the safety protocols that are in place until we get the all-clear that we're able to do that," Kelly said. "Our pathway to whatever that new normal is going to be is through the vaccine."

j.bergman@theday.com

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