The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Vietnam-era draftees may recall inoculations without needles. They were fast.

A woman is vaccinated for the swine flu via jet injector as part of a nationwide vaccination campaign in 1976. Rather than using needles, injectors pushed a dose through the skin with compressed air.
A woman is vaccinated for the swine flu via jet injector as part of a nationwide vaccination campaign in 1976. Rather than using needles, injectors pushed a dose through the skin with compressed air. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
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The last time I spoke with Steve Peters was in April 2010, when the retired railroad engineer from Arkansas was in Washington trying to sell a small plaster statue of James Garfield, the model for the statue near the U.S. Capitol. He carried the maquette around in a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. (Nobody bought it.)

So when I heard Steve’s voice on my answering machine, I remembered him right away.

“Call me, Johnny-boy,” he said. “It’s about that covid deal. I guarantee you, you’ll be the hero of the day. You and me can shine like you wouldn’t believe.”

Eager to be the hero of the day, I called Steve back.

Steve is 81. “But I’m still getting around pretty damn good,” he said.

He lives with his wife, Sandy, in Fort Smith, Ark. As Steve sees it, the problem with this covid deal is that vaccines aren’t being administered quickly enough. People are waiting in line for hours for their shots.

The solution? Well, Steve said that when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1960, he was sent to Fort Polk, La., for basic training. He was among hundreds of fresh conscripts who stripped to their skivvies and stood in a quickly moving line to be inoculated.

“Now listen to this,” Steve said. “This is the beauty part of it. Nobody knows anything about this except people who are as old as I am. They had what they called a ‘shot gun.’ ”

Rather than deliver each inoculation via a separate needle-tipped syringe, this device held hundreds of doses in a reservoir. And it didn’t use a needle — it used compressed air to push the vaccine through the skin. Medics pressed it against each soldier’s bare upper arm and pulled the trigger.

I’ve seen these contraptions in action, and it reminded me of a grocery store stock boy putting adhesive price labels on cans of French-cut green beans. (There’s an analogy that will be lost on anyone under 40.)

Steve estimates 1,000 men were vaccinated in less than an hour. He thinks that’s what we need for the coronavirus vaccine.

Those devices “will give a shot a second,” he said. “Drive up. Bam! Drive up. Bam! Drive up. Bam!”

I checked with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The agency’s Abby Capobianco emailed back to explain that a vaccine and its delivery method are approved in tandem.

“When FDA approves a vaccine, the approval is based on scientific information demonstrating the safety and effectiveness of that vaccine in a given population (e.g., children, adults or the elderly), using a specific dose, schedule and method/route of administration,” she wrote.

A jet injector — that’s what they’re called — subjects a vaccine to different conditions than a sterile needle and syringe.

Wrote Abby: “As a result, the effectiveness and the safety profile of the injected vaccine may be altered.”

Currently, there is no FDA-approved coronavirus vaccine that is administered without a needle. Some companies are exploring the needleless method, including Colorado-based PharmJet, which is involved in trials in several countries with several different vaccines.

Steve thinks those “shot guns” were pretty slick, though not all his memories of them are rosy ones. A few days into basic training, he was with his platoon on a training march wearing full packs.

Steve, at 20, was one of the older soldiers. “They called me Pop,” he said.

They looked up to him, too, so when Steve said he was tired of marching and preferred to stroll back to the barracks on his own time, about a dozen others followed suit.

“We just drug around there and told jokes all the way down,” he said.

Night was falling as Steve and the others got back to camp. They thought they’d gotten away with it, until the drill sergeant drove up in a Jeep. He’d seen them goldbricking.

“He sent for the CO — commanding officer — and said, ‘Sir, these men are stragglers. What are we going to do?’”

The commanding officer said, “Have them fall out for plague shots.”

The soldiers were taken to the medical unit where 14 shots were administered: seven in each shoulder, Steve said. The shots may not have involved needles, but that didn’t mean they didn’t hurt.

“The next day, my poor old arms wasn’t even moving,” Steve said.

On the plus side, he never got the plague.

“The next time we had a forced march, every one of us was Johnny-on-the-spot,” Steve said. “I never bucked the Army again.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.

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