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Feds To Reimburse States For Vaccine Duty By National Guard Members

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On his first day in office, President Biden ordered full reimbursement to states using National Guard troops in the battle against the pandemic. This was good news for the growing number of states calling up Guard troops to boost the pace of vaccinations. WUNC's Jay Price reports.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: This high school parking lot in Elizabeth City, N.C., has been transformed into kind of a vaccine freeway. Four lines of cars creep towards troops in camouflage, working shoulder to shoulder with health department nurses. Michael Barclift is a behavior coach for the local school system. He kills his engine as Major Hollis Guenther walks up.

HOLLIS GUENTHER: Hi, sir. So this is an information card for you to keep. I'm going to let you fill out your information up here. Today you're going to get the Moderna vaccination, which basically means in a month, you're going to want to get the Moderna booster shot.

PRICE: Barclift said he had some initial reservations about the vaccine, but educated himself on it.

MICHAEL BARCLIFT: I've been, you know, kind of watching other people, talking to different people, and so I feel very confident in it today.

PRICE: After Guenther is finished giving him instructions about the vaccine, Barclift pulls forward a few feet, where Tech Sergeant Steven Simpson waits with a hypodermic needle.

STEVEN SIMPSON: All right, I'm going to go ahead and administer this vaccine. A slight pinch. You're done.

BARCLIFT: All right.

SIMPSON: Not so bad, huh?

BARCLIFT: No.

PRICE: Guard troops in nearly 30 states are now helping with the vaccination efforts. The full federal reimbursement to the states, up from 75% under the Trump administration, could encourage more to follow suit. Guenther, the leader of the team in the parking lot, said as an emergency room nurse practitioner in his civilian life, he's worn down from the pandemic, sick of seeing people suffering and dying from it. Helping out with the vaccine effort has given him a lift.

GUENTHER: It's almost like being on the offensive for a change. You know, working in emergency departments has just been a beating over the last, honestly, year. And so now just trying to get up ahead of this infection, you know, get the world back to eating out again and seeing grandma and, you know, not going to funerals.

PRICE: As the Guard team helps inoculate drivers and passengers, other troops across town are processing the piles of paperwork generated by thousands of vaccinations. Battle Betts is director of Albemarle Regional Health Services. He says it was a huge relief for his small staff to get the Guard's help.

BATTLE BETTS: Their training, their background - this is perfectly in their wheelhouse.

PRICE: His organization is responsible for eight counties. The smaller counties each have just two nurses who can do vaccinations on top of their other work. Already worn down from nearly a year of fighting the pandemic, they face a daunting challenge - vaccinating a population of 160,000 people twice.

BETTS: So you're really talking about 320,000 immunizations, well, because you've got to get all those folks back for that second dose.

PRICE: Clinics like the one in the parking lot are part of the largest immunization effort in U.S. history. And like the health department nurses, the Guard has had to cope with pandemic duty while also covering its normal missions. Major General Todd Hunt is the adjutant general of the North Carolina National Guard.

TODD HUNT: At one point in time, we had almost a thousand soldiers that we called up, and we knew that's not sustainable forever, you know, because of the pandemic. And then, you know, National Guardsmen and Airmen also have civilian jobs.

PRICE: And so for pandemic jobs that have lasted nearly a year, the Guard took volunteers. Now as many as 250 more troops are being called up for vaccination duty. All this comes after a year that saw the most National Guard troops activated nationally since World War II, and this year is shaping up to be another big one. Already, 23,000 National Guard troops are helping fight the pandemic.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Elizabeth City, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAVES OF STEEL'S "STILL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.