Truman Alumni Reunite to Help Global Vaccine Efforts

Alumni Rachel Humphrey and Bryan Heartsfield are leading the way to make sure everyone in the world has access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Truman has been the home of the bulldogs for more than 100 years. In 1915, the mascot was selected by students to represent the school because of its perseverance and ability to hold on and fight until the very end. With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that two Bulldogs are currently leading the effort to help the nation – and the world – defeat a pandemic.

Rachel Humphrey (’95) and Bryan Heartsfield (’92) are two of the leaders in the fight against the coronavirus. Humphrey, an Army Colonel, is the chief of plans for the COVID-19 Countermeasures Acceleration Group. Through his role with the Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, Heartsfield is the Strategic National Stockpile lead public health advisor. In short, the two are working together out of Washington, D.C., to make sure everyone on the planet has access to a vaccine.

Truman ROTC was the first outfit to bring the duo together. Heartsfield was a senior cadet when Humphrey came in as a freshman. Their time at the University only overlapped one year, but their paths crossed again when their military careers had them both in Kuwait in 1999. They have remained friends ever since, but neither was prepared to see them brought together for the biggest global health initiative in a generation.

“I was briefing during a morning ‘stand-up’ national coordination call from the Vaccine Operations Center where all of the leaders on site gather and update federal partners across the nation using a conference line,” Heartsfield said. “She was standing in the room. What a small world. To both be assigned to a national-level response out of a certain room in a certain building in Washington, D.C., was just shocking.”

Fate had reunited the Truman alumni. Heartsfield, who started working for the CDC after a decorated career as a Medical Service Corps Officer in the Army, was selected for his role because of his experience leading national-level responses such as Ebola outbreaks in Africa, Zika in Puerto Rico, and numerous hurricanes in the United States. Humphrey, was rotated in to relieve the previous Department of Defense team. As the chief of plans, she works with generals and White House staff to oversee the operation, which makes the former freshman cadet the boss of her friend and senior cadet.

“Who would have thought that two Truman alumni would be leading the way during one of the most important public health response efforts in history?” said Humphrey. “It’s a credit to the types of people that Truman graduates.”

The Strategic National Stockpile purchases the materials to create and assemble kits with all the components needed to provide the COVID-19 vaccination. The kits are then distributed throughout the country in order to stem the tide of the virus. In roughly eight months, nearly 400 million doses of the vaccine were made available, with almost 70 percent of the U.S. population above the age of 12 receiving at least one vaccine.

“Vaccines can take anywhere from three to five years from inception to approval,” Heartsfield said. “We did it in just over a year, and even though it felt slow, today you can get a vaccine just by walking into most pharmacy stores.”

As the vaccine has become readily available in the U.S., Humphrey’s and Heartsfield’s team has started to spread its efforts across the globe. No fewer than 74 countries receive assistance from the U.S. to help get their populations vaccinated.

“It is truly rewarding to support those in need regardless of where they live,” Humphrey said. “Not since the Spanish Flu of 1918 has the world suffered from such a deadly pandemic. That death toll was estimated to between 20 million to 50 million people, and to be able to be a part of the national, now global, effort to keep that from repeating is intense, unrelenting and more than anything, humbling.”

Truman’s vision statement calls for its graduates to be “citizen-leaders committed to service” who can “offer creative solutions to local, state, national and global problems.” Humphrey and Heartsfield are the living embodiment of that sentiment. Their work evokes pride in the University’s alumni base, and the collaboration of the civilian and military fields to serve humankind across the world emboldens a sense of patriotism on a level unseen in decades.

“Not since WWII, has the industrial base of the United States mobilized under a common goal at this scale, and we, the United States of America, really are sharing with the world,” Heartsfield said. “Other nations are also benefiting from industry, medical and other professions that supported this effort. What we are living in right now is, in fact, history. Our grandchildren and their children will study this moment in time and ask us what it was like.”  

Returning to “normal” will depend largely on making the vaccine accessible to everyone, and there is still much work to be done. Citizens of the world can rest assured that these two Bulldogs will remain in the fight until the very end.