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COVID vaccinations underway for military members at 123rd Airlift Wing

Master Sgt. Natasha Perry, a medic with the 123rd Medical Group, prepares to administer a COVID-19 vaccination to members of the 123rd Airlift Wing at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville Ky., Jan. 9, 2021. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Horton)

Master Sgt. Natasha Perry, a medic with the 123rd Medical Group, prepares to administer a COVID-19 vaccination to members of the 123rd Airlift Wing at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville Ky., Jan. 9, 2021. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Horton)

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey L. Wilkinson (right), Kentucky’s assistant adjutant general for Air, is administered a COVID-19 vaccination by Master Sgt. Natasha Perry, a medic with the 123rd Medical Group, at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville Ky., Jan. 9, 2021. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Horton)

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey L. Wilkinson (right), Kentucky’s assistant adjutant general for Air, is administered a COVID-19 vaccination by Master Sgt. Natasha Perry, a medic with the 123rd Medical Group, at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville Ky., Jan. 9, 2021. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Horton)

Brig. Gen. Charles Walker (left), chief of staff for Joint Forces Headquarters Kentucky — Air, receives his first COVID-19 vaccination at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville, Ky., Jan. 10, 2021. All Kentucky Air Guard members are eligible for the vaccinations. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Lt. Col. Allison Stephens)

Brig. Gen. Charles Walker (left), chief of staff for Joint Forces Headquarters Kentucky — Air, receives his first COVID-19 vaccination at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville, Ky., Jan. 10, 2021. All Kentucky Air Guard members are eligible for the vaccinations. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Lt. Col. Allison Stephens)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- As health officials across the nation continue to report record infections from COVID-19, more vaccination options are being rolled out in Kentucky, including here at the 123rd Airlift Wing.

The wing began vaccinating medical personnel and front-line workers — Airmen tasked with supporting COVID testing sites, nursing homes and other long-term care facilities — on Jan. 6, said Maj. Stephanie Murphy, a physician assistant in the 123rd Medical Group who helped stand up the wing’s COVID mitigation program.

Now, the effort is being expanded to all members of the Kentucky Air National Guard, as well as to civilian employees who work on base. The vaccine is administered in two doses, at least 28 days apart, during regularly scheduled sessions at the wing immunization clinic. Traditional Guard members must be on orders or drill status to receive the vaccine and should contact their unit orderly rooms for more information on scheduling.

Lt. Col. Stephen Sample, an emergency room physician from Jasper, Indiana, and a flight surgeon in the Kentucky Air National Guard, encouraged everyone in the wing to get inoculated, even though the vaccine is voluntary for members of the Department of Defense.

“Most military members are young, in good shape and healthy,” Sample said. “But you know, some of your field grade officers and your senior NCOs — we're a little closer to that high risk group. (That means) some of you young Airmen are walking around the base with people who have risks for severe illness.

“Let's protect those around us who are vulnerable. And this is how we get to do that, right? This is how we get to protect our vulnerable: the vaccine. It’s nice that as a side effect of the vaccine, I should be safer in general, but when we talk about unrolling a vaccination plan, we're talking about a public health thing. We're talking about the safety of not just me, because now I'm safe. But it's the rest of my community that is still not. So this is where we as military members — and young military members, especially — can lead.

“I will tell you, if you want to go back to normal, if you want heard immunity, this is the only way through so far. This is how we can protect those around us. And so I would like to see a line 5 miles long to get on the base, to get these vaccines.”

Col. David Mounkes, wing commander, echoed Sample’s thoughts.

“I personally felt it was important that I get vaccinated, so that I'm protected and so that I can do my job,” Mounkes said. “And then I can have some assurance that I won't bring COVID home to my family once the vaccination does its work.”

Mounkes, who received his first shot Jan. 9, described the side effects as minimal — “a little bit of fatigue” the first night. Other common side effects include headache and pain at the injection site.

He noted that the wing has been charged with maintaining its combat and combat-support ability throughout the nearly year-long crisis, and those efforts will need to continue. The vaccine offers a way to help ensure maximum health among wing members.

“Here's the thing: Don't let your guard down,” Mounkes said. “COVID numbers are still high throughout the entire country, and we still have a ways to go for the vaccinations.”

As of today, Kentucky health officials reported 361,124 confirmed cases to date across the Commonwealth, and 3,714 COVID-related deaths. Thursday saw the most deaths ever reported for a single day in Kentucky at 69, attributed to a post-holiday surge in infections.

Nationally, 26,178,803 COVID cases have been recorded by the Coronovirus Research Center at Johns Hopkins University, and 441,282 deaths. The global numbers stand at 102,922,990 and 2,226,935, respectively.

So far, health agencies across Kentucky have administered 400,267 does of COVID vaccine out of 466,700 doses received, according to Gov. Andy Beshear.

Murphy, who recently turned the reins of the base COVID-response effort over to Maj. Angela Himler, stressed that the vaccine is safe and effective, providing about 94 percent efficacy in clinical trials within two weeks of the second dose.

Murphy also noted that the vaccine was created using messenger RNA technology, which means it does not contain a live virus.

“If you get the vaccine, you will not take the coronavirus back home to your family,” she said.

Himler put to rest concerns, stoked by false Internet memes, that mRNA immunizations can rewrite a person’s DNA.

“The answer to that is no,” she said. “Your DNA is inside of your (cells’) nucleus. The messenger RNA never enters the nucleus where your DNA is stored. Instead it helps your body make a snapshot of what the spike protein on the coronavirus looks like, so that your body recognizes that as a foreign material, then starts building its defense against that spike protein. So if you are exposed to coronavirus in the future, you've already built your antibodies against that. Once that messenger RNA has told your body to make a picture of that spike protein, it disintegrates — it's no longer with you.”

Himler encouraged Airmen to consult the COVID section of the wing’s smartphone app for more information and answers to frequently asked questions. The app also offers members the option to send questions to wing health professionals by clicking on the Medical Group tile.

“We want all our Airmen to make an informed decision about the vaccine as we work to keep our mission readiness strong and provide support to our Commonwealth, our communities and our families,” Mounkes said.