U.S. soldiers and sailors will probably need to roll up their sleeves at least once more even after they get their second coronavirus vaccine dose to maintain protection against COVID-19 and any emerging variants.
While the science isn’t fully settled yet, top Pentagon officials anticipate that a COVID-19 booster shot will probably be required at some point in the future and there is “a lot more work” left to get the entire military fully vaccinated.
The Pentagon on Wednesday gave an update on its press to vaccinate those in the ranks, after stories earlier this year raised concerns that fully a third of service men and women were turning down the voluntary shot.
On Wednesday, the Defense Department said it has logged 282,166 individual cases of the virus, with 3,942 requiring hospitalization and 344 deaths.
Department officials said they have administered more than 2.62 million vaccine doses out of more than 3.2 million that they received. A Pentagon official said the military’s distribution rate exceeds that of the civilian population, 83% to 78%.
“So we’re making progress and we’re happy to see that,” said John Kirby, chief Pentagon spokesman.
As of Wednesday, the Army reported having 135,413 soldiers fully vaccinated,, with 134,517 partially vaccinated. The Marine Corps reported 55,019 fully vaccinated and 23,281 partially vaccinated. The Navy said it administered complete vaccination doses to 145,939 sailors and partially vaccinated 69,711, while the Air Force reported having 123,550 airmen fully vaccinated and 53,158 partially vaccinated. Those figures include both active duty and reserve component personnel, Defense Department officials said.
In addition to uniformed personnel, 211,320 civilians who work for the Department of Defense were fully vaccinated compared to 110,474 who have received the first round of COVID-19 shots.
The figures mean about 28% of the total public-sector defense force — active duty and reserve — have received the COVID-19 vaccine
“We know we’ve got a lot more work to do here,” Mr. Kirby said. “There’s an awful lot that isn’t fully vaccinated right now, but we’re not keeping vaccines on the shelf.”
The Food and Drug Administration’s decision to temporarily suspend use of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot COVID-19 vaccine threw a wrench into the Pentagon’s plans to inoculate troops overseas. But Defense Department officials said they are adapting by redirecting 31,500 additional doses of the two-shot Moderna vaccine to overseas locations in Europe, while another 30,000 doses will be shipped out to U.S. troops within Central Command and Indo-Pacific Command.
“We understood and agreed with the rationale for the [J&J] pause,” said Army Lt. Gen. Ronald J. Place, director of the Defense Health Agency. “It’s not the only vaccine that’s been directed to them.”
While stateside military personnel can avail themselves of multiple programs, both military and civilian, to receive FDA-approved inoculations, only U.S. military hospitals and health care clinics can provide that service for troops posted in Europe, Asia or other overseas locations.
The Pentagon will be shipping additional Moderna doses overseas “for the next several weeks,” Lt. Gen. Place said.
Military officials have said they don’t track the exact number of personnel who decline to receive the vaccine. They are relying on an extensive public information drive and word of mouth to convince the troops to get the shot. While some civilian companies have offered incentives for their employees, that isn’t likely to happen in the military. There are legal issues to consider within the armed forces, because the vaccine was approved for use only on an “emergency basis” by the FDA.
“Commanders have to be very careful not to exert what we call ‘Undue Command Influence’ … on a thing that is voluntary,” Lt. Gen. Place said.
Getting the vaccine and almost completely eliminating the chances of catching a serious case of COVID-19 should be incentive enough, said Dr. Terry Adirim, acting assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.
Although the COVID-19 situation is improving, Dr. Adirim said she couldn’t predict when things will “get back to normal.”
“I wish we could predict exactly what that would be,” she said. “If at some point in time the virus is not transmittable, then we can get much closer to ‘normal.’”