The Defense Department on Friday promised to make the COVID-19 vaccine available to all eligible beneficiaries by May 1.
And barring any unforeseen problems with the vaccine supply, Defense Health Agency director Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Place expects all defense personnel will be vaccinated by mid-July, he said at a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon.
Terry Adirim, acting assistant secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, said at the briefing that the broad vaccine expansion throughout the military will help meet President Joe Biden’s new goal of administering 200 million shots in the first 100 days of his administration. Biden originally pledged to administer 100 million shots in that time frame, but broadened the government's aims in his press conference Thursday.
Adirim acknowledged that some service members were initially hesitant to receive the vaccine. But now, she said, more troops are getting the shot, and she thanked those who have gotten it.
"They are not only protecting themselves, but they're also contributing to the safety of their teammates, their families and their communities," Adirim said. "The light at the end of the tunnel is near. I know you've heard that over and over again, but it's true."
The Pentagon's announcement followed a similar pledge made Thursday by the Department of Veterans Affairs to open vaccinations to all 24 million veterans by May 1.
So far, Place said, 1.8 million shots have been administered to more than 1.1 million Defense personnel and beneficiaries at 343 Military Health System sites worldwide. Nearly 3,000 service members, supporting the Federal Emergency Management Agency's civilian vaccination centers around the country, have administered an additional 5 million shots and counting, he and Adirim said.
"Vaccination is one critical part of getting our country back to normal, along with continued testing and adherence to public health measures like masking and social distancing," Adirim said. "We just can't let up at this point."
Of the DoD personnel and beneficiaries who have received at least one dose of the vaccine so far, more than 600,000 are active, Guard or Reserve service members, Place said, or about 30% of the uniformed force. The rest include military retirees and family members, and certain Defense Department civilians and contractors, he said.
As of Friday, the Pentagon said that 172,407 uniformed service members have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and 24 have died.
Nearly all sites in the military are vaccinating troops who are deployed or are preparing to deploy, Place said. Strategic defense forces, or service members tasked with protecting the nation against nuclear attack, also are being vaccinated, he said, as are people over the age of 75 and frontline essential workers.
Some other sites also are vaccinating people between the ages of 65 and 75, and those ages 17 to 64 who are at an increased risk of severe illness if infected with COVID, Place said.
But about 60% of service members fall in the lowest-priority vaccination tier of people below age 64, without underlying health conditions, and who are not required currently to deploy for operational missions, Place said.
Most military installations have not yet started offering vaccines to people in those tiers, he said, "meaning more than half the force has not yet been offered a vaccine." Place added that is roughly in line with most jurisdictions in the United States.
"All Americans who receive their care from the Department of Defense and would like to be vaccinated will have that opportunity over the next few months, whether abroad or here in the United States," Place said. "Thanks to our progress in administering these vaccines, combined with our ongoing public health measures and laboratory testing, we truly are turning a corner in our country, and in the DoD."
Place and Adirim also played down concerns that a significant portion of troops may decline the COVID vaccine. On Feb. 17, military officials told a congressional hearing that about 66% to 70% of the troops who had at that time been offered the vaccine had accepted it, which meant that nearly one-third of those who were offered the vaccine chose not to take it then.
Place said that installations have lists of people in the various tiers who would be eligible for the vaccine and tracks who has accepted invitations to get the shot and who did not make an appointment. As installations work their way through those tiers, he said, they circle back and reach out to people who previously passed, and many are accepting that second, third or fourth offer.
People won't lose their eligibility to receive the vaccine if they do not take an offer, Place said.
Adirim said the Pentagon isn't collecting data on how many people initially declined a vaccine offer and then reconsidered. She said the military is focused on educating service members and their families so they can make decisions about vaccination.
"I tell my family, several of whom also serve in the military, that these are great vaccines, and to get them at their first opportunity," Place said. "These are safe, effective vaccines and are critical weapons in our fight against COVID-19."
The military has no plans to create a broad incentive program to encourage people to get vaccinated, Adirim said. Place said individual commanders could offer an incentive within their authority to encourage their troops to get vaccinated, if they so choose.
Place said the supply chain for vaccines is running smoothly, with shipments arriving on time, and doses are being administered as soon as vaccination sites get them.
Demand for the vaccine is still outpacing supply, he said, but he expects that to be resolved in a few weeks. The addition of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine has helped the Defense Department vaccinate people overseas and in austere locations, because it does not require ultra-cold refrigeration as other vaccines do.
Though the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has a lower efficacy rate than the other emergency-approved vaccines -- 72% effective at preventing moderate to severe COVID cases, as opposed to the 95% effectiveness of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines -- Place discouraged such comparisons, or concluding Johnson & Johnson's is a lesser vaccine.
"We would really caution anyone from comparing any efficacy or safety or any other factor of any of the vaccines against each other, because it's not been done," Place said. "But if you look at them all, all three of them in general are very safe [and] very effective."
Service members who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 also no longer have to stay out of the workplace if they have been in close contact with someone with COVID, the Pentagon said in updated force health protection guidance dated March 17.
Under the previous health protection guidance issued last April, which is now rescinded, there was no such exception for vaccinated personnel.
Adirim said that is one example of a change instituted after the Biden administration's review and update of all COVID-related policies and force health protection guidance. This brings the Pentagon's health protection rules in line with the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she said.
The new health protection guidance also says that personnel who have tested positive for COVID-19 within the past three months and since recovered are not required to stay out of the workplace, even if they were exposed to COVID again.
But, Adirim said, the Pentagon still is requiring fully vaccinated people arriving at the Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to quarantine for 14 days under ROM, or restriction of movement, orders. She did not answer a question whether that standard also applies for other deployed locations, but said the Pentagon is continuing to review its guidelines and talk to experts at the CDC about how long vaccinated people should remain on ROM status upon arriving at Guantanamo Bay.