When President Trump talks about efforts to deliver the coronavirus vaccine to millions of Americans eager to return to their normal lives, he often says he is “counting on the military” to get it done.
Mr. Trump has given the impression that troops would be packing up vials, transporting them from factories to pharmacies and perhaps even administering shots. And, at times, military officers working on the sprawling interagency program to move those vaccine doses from drug companies into doctors’ offices have indicated the same thing.
In reality, the role of the military has been less public and more pervasive than this characterization suggests.
When companies have lacked the physical spaces needed to conduct their drug trials, the Defense Department has acquired trailers and permits to create pop-up medical sites in parking lots. When a required piece of plastic or glass was in short supply, the military leveraged a law passed during the Korean War to force manufacturers to move them to the front of the line. Should a hurricane hit somewhere, blocking trucks, the military has transportation ready.
But the distribution of vaccines will be left largely to their producers and commercial transportation companies. Black Hawk helicopters will not be landing next to neighborhood drugstore to drop off doses.
Scores of Defense Department employees are laced through the government offices involved in the effort, making up a large portion of the federal personnel devoted to the effort. Those numbers have led some current and former officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to privately grumble that the military’s role in Operation Warp Speed was too large for a task that is, at its core, a public health campaign.
“Frankly, it has been breathtaking to watch,” said Paul Ostrowski, a retired Army lieutenant general and the director of supply, production and distribution for Operation Warp Speed.