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Army deploying 200 soldiers to support United Center vaccination site

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates once called the Army’s 101st Airborne Division “the tip of the spear” in Afghanistan. Soon, 200 soldiers from that division will be the tip of the syringe in Chicago’s fight against COVID-19.

Construction equipment sits on one of United Center’s parking lots in the Near West She neighborhood, Friday afternoon, Feb. 26, 2021, where crews are building a mass COVID-19 vaccination site that is set to open March 10.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates once referred to the Army’s 101st Airborne Division as “the tip of the spear” in Afghanistan.

But starting Friday, 200 soldiers from the light infantry division known commonly as the “Screaming Eagles” will be the tip of the syringe in Chicago’s fight against COVID-19.

The troops are being deployed to support the mass vaccination site at the United Center that’s expected to start administering shots Tuesday, according to a news release from the 101st Airborne Division. The soldiers, who are assigned to the 426th Brigade Support Batallion’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, are part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s COVID-19 response operation.

The first vaccinations will go into arms Tuesday outside the United Center site.
Scott Olson/Getty

“The 101st has a long history of answering our nation’s call, which at times has been to support civil authority here within the U.S.,” said Lt. Col. Derek Di Bello, battalion commander. “It is a mission we will take on with the same focus and energy that we would any task given to us.”

The reinforcements were requested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is managing the vaccination site with help from the Defense Department and state and local officials. The soldiers join 139 others already assisting the federal vaccination in Orlando, Florida.

FEMA will will administer about 6,000 vaccine doses per day in tents set up in the parking lot northeast of the United Center. The city began booking appointments Thursday for people 65 and older, prompting a rush to enroll that created long wait times and glitches with the online sign-up system.

By the afternoon, “tens of thousands” of people had already booked appointments, according to Dr. Rachel Bernard, the medical director of the Chicago Department of Public Health’s COVID response bureau.

To register, go to zocdoc.com/vaccine, or call 312-746-4835.