The Defense Department has logged more than 1,640 "breakthrough" cases of COVID-19 in beneficiaries who have been fully vaccinated, including 24 cases requiring hospitalization, the head of the Defense Health Agency said Thursday.
There have been no deaths connected with the breakthrough cases. And with more than 1.5 million people within the DoD fully vaccinated, data shows that vaccine effectiveness is exceeding the 95% efficacy rates seen in clinical trials, Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Place said during a briefing with reporters.
"If you do the math, [the vaccine is] 99.9% effective for our beneficiaries in preventing infection, 99.999% effective at preventing hospitalizations and 100% effective at preventing death," Place said. "That's incredible."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last week that it planned only to monitor breakthrough infections that result in hospitalization or death, a switch from its previous efforts to track all breakthrough cases.
CDC officials said they made the change to ensure that they are gathering data on cases of biggest concern -- those that cause serious illness or death. Many breakthrough infections may go unnoticed or unidentified because they result in asymptomatic or mild cases.
Place said the DoD has entered all of its COVID-19 cases into a database so it can track issues with beneficiaries, including breakthrough cases.
"So even though the CDC isn't requiring it, we still track it," he said.
The DoD has diagnosed nearly 300,000 cases of COVID-19 in its population since the beginning of the pandemic, including 193,737 among U.S. military personnel, and recorded 351 deaths.
As of Wednesday, the DoD had administered 3.3 million COVID-19 vaccination doses, including more than 1 million to troops. According to Dr. Terry Adirim, acting assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, 58% of the active-duty force has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Currently, 29 individuals are hospitalized for COVID-19 in the military health system, Place said, the lowest number since June 2020.
"[This is] another indication of the degree to which the vaccine is keeping people healthy and out of the hospital," he said.
Defense Department officials issued a memo Wednesday containing guidance to leaders to encourage personnel to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
The memo tells commanders to make sure the vaccine is available to all who want it; to engage hesitant personnel at all levels, "acknowledging concerns in a non-judgemental way and addressing questions;" to educate personnel on the science of the vaccines; and to use policies and procedures to encourage participation, such providing liberty passes to personnel who choose to get vaccinated or giving them non-chargeable leave for vaccine recovery.
Adirim explained that commanders have "wide authority" to use personnel policy to encourage vaccinations.
"For example, one of the policies is that people who are vaccinated do not have to quarantine pre- and post-travel, but if you're not vaccinated, you still have to," she said.
Installations across the services have embraced this approach. At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for example, Army leaders began reopening the installation in late March, starting with a mess hall and gym exclusively for use by fully vaccinated personnel.
Soldiers must show their vaccine cards for entry.
"Our dining facilities were closed for dining-in for more than a year," Col. Joe Buccino, a spokesman for XVIII Airborne Corps, said during an interview last month. "The concern for us is the social benefits of coming together. There is a lot of value in joining together."
Some beneficiaries have said that such tactics are a form of coercion. An Army spouse who lives in Georgia but asked that her name not be used said incentives "restrict the freedom of movement and thus creates a culture of coercion in clear violation of medical ethics."
"Many efforts to 'compel' the uptake of the vaccinations and tie it to one's ability to reintegrate within society or military functions [are] a topic of immense concern," she said.
Buccino noted, however, that the incentives don't actually change the status quo for the non-vaccinated, who will continue to get their meals via takeaway and may use gyms that offer weight training just as they have for the past 14 months.
Adirim said the DoD has seen a rapid increase in the number of personnel getting the vaccine, with 58% of the force vaccinated now compared to just 37% a month ago. She added that the DoD currently has no plans to make the vaccines mandatory and will revisit its decision if the Food and Drug Administration gives them full approval. The vaccines are currently being distributed under Emergency Use Authorizations.
"Thank you to our service members and other duty personnel who have chosen to get vaccinated, and to continue to encourage their fellow service members, family members and friends to do the same as well," Place added.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.