This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.
A small but growing number of Part 135 operators have jumped into the Covid-19 vaccine distribution effort as rural communities continue to seek support. But much more can and needs to be done on the distribution front, said Ryan Waguespack, senior v-p of the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), who added the association has been working to try to facilitate public-private partnerships connecting operators with state and local health departments.
NATA on Thursday issued a call to action to encourage operators to get involved and assembled a working white paper to serve as a guide on these efforts. The white paper notes that Congress in December appropriated $8.7 billion for distribution and the Part 135 community is “uniquely position to assist outlying communities and regions and expanding the health and vaccine distribution infrastructure currently in place—creating unique opportunities for partnerships between private industry and local government to achieve Congress’ key goals.”
NATA added that the U.S. has nearly 2,000 air carriers and air ambulance providers that can bring both vaccines and desperately needed medical personnel to nearly 4,500 general aviation airports.
“UPS and FedEx do a fantastic job of getting the vaccines into a hub, but how do you get the vaccines in a safe and timely manner, along with those that are going to administer the vaccine, to rural America, which is about 40 percent,” Waguespack said. “The general aviation airports are the vehicle of how we are going to get this into 40 percent.”
He noted that he’s heard from officials in several locations looking for help and that was underscored by a recent tour through Montana and Wyoming. In one location, when health department officials heard of NATA’s visit, they showed up appealing for help. Their airport was the lifeline for vaccines and medical distribution since certain road access had been cordoned off in Native American lands to stunt the spread of Covid. “These are areas looking for solutions,” he said.
Some of this activity is already ongoing, he said, pointing to Part 135 operations in Washington and Alaska to distribute vaccines to Native American territories and remote regions. He also mentioned another operator was participating in a beta trial with the Department of Veterans Affairs to deliver vaccines in Montana. That operator has already completed nearly 10 missions. But Waguespack said the VA is looking to scale these types of operations to get vaccines to veterans.
He added that similar efforts are underway in Europe, citing efforts of Italian manufacturer Tecnam, which launched a P2012 Travelcare package, which involves equipping the piston aircraft with Desmon ultra freezers and configuring it to carry as much as 115,000 vaccine doses to remote regions.
Beyond reaching remote regions, NATA also notes that roles general aviation airports and their tenants can play to serve as staging sites for transfer of vaccines and medical equipment, storage sites, or even hosts to vaccine clinics. Arlington Municipal Airport in Washington has opened its airport as a vaccine clinic site.
The air ambulance community further can play an important role with the expertise and medical capabilities they have on hand, he further said, noting some of these operators have seen missions fall off during the pandemic as there have been fewer transfers between hospitals and other facilities.
“It’s a rewarding mission. It’s really showcasing what our industry is about,” he said.
Operators have expressed an interest in participating but are not sure where to start, Waguespack said. Meanwhile, local health officials have not been sure how to coordinate such efforts, he added, noting they are not trained logistics specialists.
NATA has been advising interested operators to reach out to their state and local health departments, as well as the VA, to discuss how they can help. NATA also is continuing to refine its white paper on the issue to include additional information regarding vaccine distribution funding, he said.
As far as provisions for transporting the vaccine, Part 135 operators are carrying far fewer vials that can fit into specially modified refrigeration coolers that simply plug in and eliminate safety concerns associated with the dry ice, Waguespack said. He noted that there can be requirements for temperature monitoring but said most of these missions are fairly short, eliminating some of the logistical difficulties that would come with much more time-consuming transportation by truck to rural areas.