Prepared for Everything:

Col. Chris Howell, first-ever PA in the Kentucky Army National Guard to achieve that rank, shares experiences working behind the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine

By Elysee Sadia
CHS Contributor

Torn between law enforcement and medicine, Col. Chris Howell found an interesting way to combine the two. Sort of.

Howell, Physician Assistant (PA) for the Dermatology Department at the VA Medical Center in Lexington, is a graduate of the University of Kentucky College of Health Sciences. Throughout his life, Howell has found himself dedicating his efforts to medicine and the military.

“I was stationed in England in 1987; I was a Security Policeman with the active duty Air Force,” he said. “There was an EMT class that was offered, and I signed up for it. When I started to learn about medicine, trauma, anatomy and physiology — I became enthralled. It was within a couple days of starting that EMT class that I knew medicine was the route I wanted to take. I knew that my profession was not going to be in law enforcement — it was going to be in some aspect of medicine.”

So, as a military individual in a medical field, Howell experienced the dual satisfaction of being a leader and serving fellow veterans at the VA Medical Center. In the Guard, the Hodgenville native serves as the Deputy Commander of Clinical Operations for the Kentucky Army National Guard’s Medical Readiness Detachment (MED DET) in Frankfort. He was promoted to Colonel in September 2020 — right in the middle of a pandemic.

As the first PA to be hired in the Department of Dermatology at the University of Kentucky in 1998, Howell trained under a dermatologist and a MOHS surgeon (which is microscopically controlled surgery used to treat common types of skin cancer). This is where Howell began his career in Dermatology.

“The leadership at the VA is top notch,” said Howell, 53. “The Dermatology Department, with its dermatologist, nurses, administrators, and other mid-level providers. We’re truly a unified team in the pursuit to do what’s right for the veterans. I reflect upon my military history over these three decades and look fondly upon that. I am even more excited on what lies ahead.”

The University of Kentucky has been a vital part Howell’s career. After graduating with his PA degree in 1998, he believes UK’s PA program encompasses characteristics that will continue to produce high-level students and clinicians. Howell said he enjoys discovering potential PA students who are organized and are able to prioritize the academic responsibilities that lie ahead. He believes in the benefit of medical experiences, and encourages pre-PA students to participate in traineeships in order to receive a concrete sense for the occupation and its challenges.

“It is time-consuming and very intense,” he said. “It is one of those things that you can’t take lightly like some people can while in undergrad. “UK has a a very ramped-up program, and you have got to be mentally, physically, emotionally, (and) spiritually disciplined when you start PA school.”

Howell is the Officer in Charge (OIC) of the vaccination process for the Kentucky Army National Guard and says his experience has allowed him to use his training to remain focused and maintain his self-discipline throughout the distribution of the vaccine.

“My experience as it pertains to the COVID-19 vaccination process has mainly been within the military realm, and it has gone very well,” he said. “The coordination to obtain the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is on multiple tiers but it starts with our full-time staff coordinating with the COVID-19 Vaccination Team to gauge how many vaccines we need each week, and our requests go through a coordinator in (Washington) D.C. They then route the number of vaccines that we need, so we have had very few issues at all. I am honored to be a part of this monumental endeavor.”

Howell’s successes have allowed him to clearly identify the direction in which his work is heading. Despite hardships, Howell has found light in the difficulties, especially relating to COVID-19. Although there are at times logistical hurdles, Howell persists with a mindset that displays his humanitarian views. He is driven by the ability to educate others and looks forward to continuing to inspire the youth and the community in the fight to end the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I believe with everything in life, that if we all think about and follow The Golden Rule: ‘Treat other people the way you want to be treated,’ then we will ultimately get the best of this pandemic — we will ultimately be stronger as a society and as a nation,” Howell said. “Be empathetic, and emphasize that when you get the vaccine and when you follow the precautions, you are helping humanity. That’s truly a wonderful thing.”


It’s been nearly a year since COVID-19 first began to change our lives, so here in the College of Health Sciences, we are taking time to celebrate our health and well-being, while also to honor those we’ve lost along the way. 

We are publishing a series of stories that will celebrate our faculty, staff, students and alumni. Never have we been challenged in the ways we were over the past year. We are determined that we will not forget. And we will persevere.