Commentary | March 9, 2021

Operation Honey Bee: The Coast Guard is flying COVID vaccines

By Petty Officer Brian McCrum, MyCG Writer

The Eleventh Coast Guard District has been getting creative in distributing vaccines throughout the Pacific Area. Recently, the district saw an opportunity to use reallocated vaccine doses and deliver them to units in need. They called it:

“Operation Honey Bee”

It’s the unofficial name given by the district’s response division that causes laughs and chuckling head shakes. However, behind the amusing name is the effort that is helping to keep Coast Guard members, their families and their communities safe.

“It makes sense when you look at it in a certain metaphorical way,” said Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll, Eleventh District public affairs officer. “We are making a bunch of small flights to spread out our vaccine supply just like a bee would fly from flower to flower helping them pollenate.”

Base Alameda clinic was identified early on as one of the pilot sites for the initial vaccine rollout due to their large population of Coast Guard personnel. In large part, this was because it was one of few clinics in the district that had freezers cold enough to store the vaccine, both of which needed to be stored at very cold temperatures.

The clinic received its first vaccines in December 2020, and has been able to continue vaccinating steadily since then, achieving a nearly 100% completion rate for all volunteer vaccinations according to Lt. Kate Svenson, the clinic administrator.

Once the Base Alameda Clinic achieved their initial vaccination goals Rear Adm. Brian K. Penoyer, district commander, suggested they start distributing their vaccines to units who didn’t have as large and capable clinics, or units that had to wait in line behind other services to receive vaccinations, like Sector San Diego. 

The Thirteenth District was also in need of vaccine doses. In mid-February 2021, the two districts collaborated, deciding to use Air Station Sacramento and their HC-27J Spartan airplanes to fly vaccines from the Bay Area in special coolers along with trained health services technicians to administer them to more remote units.

“We had the team and we had the resources to get these out,” said Kroll. “The C-27’s, they're mini cargo planes. It just made everything so much simpler for us to move the vaccines. The drive to San Diego is about eight hours depending on how you hit traffic in LA. It’s only about an hour and 15 minutes to fly. So they were able to get them down in the morning, get them in the freezer and start administering the [vaccinations] as soon as possible.”

Time was similarly saved on flights to other locations. Sector Humboldt Bay is a five-hour drive from the Bay Area, but a one-hour flight from Sacramento. Similarly, Seattle, in the Thirteenth District, is a 12-hour drive, but a two-hour flight. Units that were able to receive the vaccine included cutters, maritime safety and security teams, port security units, and reservists at various sectors.

It was and is a joint effort, requiring Coast Guard members working together to maintain mission readiness and protect the workforce.

“We coordinated with the [health services technicians] in San Diego and they came and supported,” said Svenson, who flew down to southern California on one of the initial flights last week. “Same thing in LA, the clinic staff there, we all worked together and got everyone vaccinated without any issues and came back and did the reserves the next day.”

“Operation Honey Bee” is not over, with several more evolutions currently scheduled, including to administer the vaccine to crewmembers of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf when they arrive in San Diego for a drug offload.

Capt. John McCarthy, commanding officer of Air Station Sacramento, said, “Knowing that the vaccine we transport will be administered within hours of delivery is a great feeling…we’re happy to play our small part.”