By Mikala Y. Williams
Since the early months of 2020, frontline workers in the fields of healthcare, postal service, manufacturing, delivery, agriculture, and food service have faced the very real risk of exposure to COVID-19. Despite the risk, these workers continued to show up and serve their communities. The Department of State’s Bureau of Medical Services (MED) marked its one-year anniversary of response to the novel coronavirus, Jan. 22. Over the past year, MED staff based in Washington worked around the clock to protect the lives and well-being of the Department’s employees and eligible family members. This included quickly organizing a 24-hour emergency operations center to manage COVID-19 inquiries, as well as conducting and providing workplace guidance. Additionally, MED offices overseas have been instrumental in protecting employees and family members at embassies and consulates worldwide.
MED’s larger mission is to ensure the health and productivity of the Department’s employees, both domestically and overseas. While still maintaining all of MED’s programs in the complex pandemic environment, the bureau developed creative solutions to manage the added responsibilities of COVID-19 testing, medical travel, contact tracing, and infection control. In December, MED was faced with another exciting and historical development when vaccine deployment became a reality. MED needed to plan how to proficiently administer a brand-new vaccine to many employees despite its limited staff capacity.
“We did not have any idea of how much [of the] vaccine we could get and initially had no established plans to distribute it quickly within the D.C. area. We thought it would go overseas because we’re the State Department,” said Dr. John Brewer, deputy medical director for Clinical Services, recalling the incredible amount of teamwork required to assess and answer the call to administer the vaccine effectively. “The entire MED team really came together to stand up a full-service mass vaccine clinic and has spent hours upon hours working on that. As of Jan. 22, we have administered over 8,000 vaccines.”
The COVID-19 vaccine campaign required an organized approach. Though the immunization effort became a central focus for the bureau, MED needed to continue its usual work as well. The Medical Clearances office continued to process hundreds of medical clearances. The Medical Specialists Staff Office continued recruitment efforts and support services for overseas health units. The Foreign Programs office managed the usual medevacs, in addition to the highly complex travel and treatment required for patients who tested positive for coronavirus. Despite that, the MED family came together to lead an unprecedented COVID-19 vaccine campaign successfully. MED adjusted to their patients’ needs with consistency and professionalism, providing private and federal organizations with a strategic blueprint to follow.
“There is no new staff here. These are the same people, and they’re doing beyond what they would normally do to make this happen. And amazingly, it’s happening,” said Dr. Lee Ann Eissler, managing director of clinical services. “We became a D.C.-based mass vaccine clinic, pivoting at every necessary point, throughout the evolution of the pandemic.”
Dr. Bentley Calhoun, director of occupational health and wellness, was one of the physicians leading MED’s vaccination rollout. He recalled moments interacting with a patient that reiterates the weight that so many have carried throughout the pandemic. He was about to vaccinate an employee, and through tears, she asked if she could take the vaccine home to her mother, who was struggling with cancer. Seeking to reassure the patient, Calhoun said, “Though I cannot send the vaccine home with you, by receiving this vaccine, you become a safer family member when you interact with your mother. Receiving this vaccine now is an act of love for your mother.”
Patients, clinic volunteers, and vaccinators shared their personal pandemic experiences throughout the vaccination process, some in heartbreak and others in delight. Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel can appear closer than it seems. During the first few weeks of the vaccination clinic opening, its waiting room quickly became a place of reunions—talking and laughing—and the warm welcome of old friends and colleagues.
“We had to remind these colleagues to visit in a socially distant and safe way,” said Calhoun. “But it was a great joy to see glimpses of people being able to connect. The occasion for these folks visiting in the waiting room, this little vaccination, this little dose of hope reminds me that this is a historical moment. This moment in time is precious.”
Mikala Y. Williams is a program coordinator in the Bureau of Medical Services.