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MHS ensures vaccine safety with immunization health care specialists

Military personnel, wearing a mask, looking at a syringe and a vial. Navy Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Desiree Gee prepares a syringe with the influenza vaccine before administering annual flu shots at Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Command Corpus Christi, Texas. (Photo by Dale Davis.)

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Overseeing the quality control of vaccines throughout the Military Health System falls on immunization healthcare specialists (IHS) within the Defense Health Agency’s Immunization Healthcare Division. A total of 17 IHSs are spread throughout the four regional vaccine safety hubs, covering the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Central, and Pacific regions. In addition to the regional hubs, the IHSs also support the Combatant Commands. They assist burdened immunization staffs to help streamline processes and provide guidance on the latest protocols on immunization safety.

“Most of the immunizers are young troops and they want to do the right thing and to be the person they can reach out to and get an answer or get some reassurance, for me personally is extremely rewarding,” said Bill Jones, immunization health care specialist with the Central Region Vaccine Safety Hub.

Fellow IHS Don Dutra of the North Atlantic Region Vaccine Safety Hub agreed, adding “The folks at the clinic level are extremely busy every day and year round, especially during flu season. I want them to be able to open emails and know I am already providing them with information they need to do their jobs at the highest level.”

While the safety of a vaccine is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, there are environmental factors that can play a role in maintaining vaccine safety such as the temperatures in which they are stored, according to Dutra, who has been an IHS since 2014. “We check refrigerators to ensure vaccines are stored appropriately within temperature ranges, are away from interior walls of the refrigerator, allowing for air flow and making sure that vaccine is properly rotated and not expired.”

Temperature plays a critical role in vaccine safety because it can make the product ineffective depending on the specific requirements of the vaccine. “When this vaccine freezes it permanently loses its potency and then you can’t use it anymore,” said immunization health care specialist David English of the Pacific Region Vaccine Safety Hub. “But a vaccine can get a lot warmer and still be viable and that’s the importance of why we’re doing this, to make sure we’re not using vaccine that’s been compromised and we want to identify those vaccines that are still good to use.” 

From conducting Continuous Quality Immunization Improvement Process (CQIIP) checks both in person and virtual on a regular basis with each immunization clinic within the MHS, the IHS ensures immunization standards are met. Although not considered inspections, the CQIIP is an opportunity to perform quality checks and recommend improvement processes within the MTFs. The CQIIP or virtual version known as VCQIIP can last 2 hours or as long as 6 hours, according to Dutra. “It depends on how the clinics may answer questions and how deeply you have to go to improve the overall program,” he said.

At the core of the IHS role is to educate and answer any questions on immunization safety and immunization policies, whether it be from the CDC, IHD, or policies within each branch of service to help streamline patient care. “The IHSs provide related training to all aspects of the immunization process from the people that administer the vaccine to their leadership,” said English. “And the primary reason we do this is we’re following the guidance from the CDC and of course the Joint Regulation on Immunizations.”

But at the end of the day, it’s all about patient safety. “We want to make sure the vaccine that is being delivered is both safe and effective,” said Dutra. “We are passionate about what we do, and we are doing our part to protect the war fighter and at the end of the day that is the bottom line.”

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