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Norfolk-based USS San Antonio pioneers shipboard COVID-19 vaccination

Ensign Areliz Tanner, assigned to the USS San Antonio, receives the second dose of COVID-19 vaccination in the ship's medical ward, Jan. 29, 2021.

CHRISTOPHER STACHYRA/U.S. NAVY

By DAVE RESS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: February 4, 2021

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(Tribune News Service) — Petty Officer 2nd Class Mary Anne Valenzuela’s mother is a medical technician who works with COVID-19 patients every day. Once she got her vaccination, she started texting Valenzuela every other day wanting to know when she was going to get hers.

“I think she considers me a first responder, too,” said Valenzuela, whose ship, USS San Antonio, set for a deployment soon, completed the Navy’s first shipboard vaccination operation last week.

“When I got my first shot, I sent her a picture of the card,” Valenzuela said. “Now that I have my second, I know when I get home I can give her a big hug.”

Vaccination is voluntary in the military, and it’s a point of pride for San Antonio’s C.O., Capt. Robert Bibeau, that most of his sailors got their shots.

“In the Navy, we’re used to getting orders and following them. That our sailors voluntarily got the vaccination because they knew it was good for them, good for the ship and good for the community is really important,” he said.

In part, that’s the result of a focused effort that ranged from ship-wide broadcasts to deckplate leaders reminders at morning quarters.

“They weren’t orders, they’re weren’t saying you have to do this, they were just saying it was available,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Richard Isotalo, who said everyone in his division got the shots.

“It wasn’t a hard decision for me,” he said. “I have a 28-year-old daughter, a 16-year-old son, three grandchildren and two parents who are getting chemotherapy and are immuno-compromised. I did it for them.”

Part of the big response, Bibeau said, was doing the shots on board the ship.

“Sailors could take a few minutes during the work day and get it done,” Bibeau said. “The lines moved really fast — I don’t think anyone had to wait more than 10 or 15 minutes.”

Cmdr. Jonathan Levenson, the Naval Surface Force Atlantic Force nurse who came to run the program, said he saw several sailors have second thoughts — and then decide in the end to come back at the end of the day to get the shots.

“I think they were talking it over with shipmates during the day,” he said. “Since we were there, it was easy to change their minds and do it.”

Levenson was part of a team that included medical staff from the surface force, Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Fleet Forces Command and the San Antonio, that put together the first shipboard vaccination program.

It involved training everyone in the requirements for handling the vaccine, which has to be kept cold.

It meant setting up a socially distant way of bringing sailors in for their shots — in the end, sailors lined up in San Antonio’s flight deck and hanger bay. The team had to estimate how much of the still-limited supply of vaccine to bring — “in the end, we had zero waste,” Levenson said.

The team arranged to screen sailors before giving the shots, and were there to answer any questions. They monitored sailors for the critical 15 minutes after the shots, to make sure nobody had any allergic reactions.

There was data to gather, because, as Capt. Kevin Brown, Force Surgeon for Fleet Forces Command said, the Navy plans more shipboard vaccinations, now that San Antonio has shown the approach works well.

Planning played a big part, he said. But, in his view, so did some Navy attitude.

“We’re supposed to face the adversary, and COVID is an adversary,” he said. “We’re a volunteer force, we volunteer to go into harm’s way to protect our home ... we’re about protecting people, including the shipmates who fight adversaries with us.”

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