WASHINGTON -- The Defense Department rollout of its coronavirus vaccine effort will expand to most military families and service members starting in April, Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Place, the director of the Defense Health Agency, said Thursday.
The announcement was made during a virtual town hall hosted by Blue Star Families and the American Red Cross for military families about the coronavirus and the availability of vaccines. Military and civilian health care officials were invited to provide answers to questions on a range of issues including the safety of the vaccines.
About one-third of troops who have been offered the vaccine have declined to receive it, Robert Salesses, the Pentagon's homeland defense chief, told lawmakers last month. Since the vaccine is only authorized on an emergency basis, the Pentagon cannot mandate service members to take it. The military services and the Pentagon have been encouraging people to get vaccinated through social media and other messaging campaigns. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin even spoke about the importance of learning the facts about the safety of the vaccine in a video message that ran during the town hall.
"Speaking as a physician, the safety and effectiveness of the approved vaccines is exceptional. And every passing week, the evidence only grows stronger," Place said regarding people's hesitancy to be vaccinated.
The Defense Department is following a tiered approach to vaccinating service members, civilian workers, and families. Most locations are now in Phases 1B and 1C, which includes deploying service members, front-line workers such as commissary staff, and people who are 65 and older, Place said. Vaccines are now available at 335 sites around the world, including in deployed locations and on ships, he said.
Phase 2 is for the remaining military community who were not identified in earlier phases. While a few locations have already moved to Phase 2, a "significant number" of Defense Department locations will move to Phase 2 in April, Place said.
All beneficiaries can access the vaccine for free from either the Defense Department or any vaccination site such as a pharmacy, he said.
Ahead of the military moving season that usually starts in spring, Place said families who are moving will not be prioritized because they will be able to access the vaccine no matter where they are moving to or from. When they are vaccinated will depend on which tier and phase that they fall under for receiving it.
Elementary school-aged children can start receiving the vaccine in the first quarter of 2022 once the data from safety studies is available, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Fauci also said pregnant women were not part of the vaccine clinical trials, yet several thousands of them have gotten the vaccine-- many of whom work in health care jobs -- in order to protect themselves and their unborn child.
"The data looks pretty strong now that it is pretty dangerous to be infected when you are pregnant because you can have an increase in adverse outcomes of the pregnancy and the health of the mother," he said.