COVID vaccination starts at more bases in Europe, but not everyone wants the jab

Airman Nicholas Stephens screens airmen selected to get the Moderna vaccine for COVID-19 at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. Airmen who opt out of having the vaccine have their decision to refuse noted in their medical records.


By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 4, 2021

Note: This article has been corrected.

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany – Airmen in Germany were given their first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine Monday, just over two weeks after it received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.

“I’m hopeful that this is the way to finally end COVID-19,” said Chief Master Sgt. Alex Angulo, the security forces manager for the 569th U.S. Forces Police Squadron, one of the first in line to get the jab in the gym at Ramstein Air Base.

He said he got the shot “for my parents, my kids and the community,” and to set an example for his airmen – some of whom have expressed concern about the shot.

Like the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the U.S.-made Moderna vaccine was developed in months rather than years and was granted emergency use authorization, not full FDA approval.

EUA is issued during emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic, when the FDA deems that a treatment or test will benefit patients, even if all the evidence establishing its effectiveness and safety is not yet available.

Regulators, vaccine developers and the military moved extremely quickly to get the Moderna vaccine “from emergency use authorization to putting needles into arms,” said Gino Mattorano, spokesman for Regional Health Command Europe.

The Moderna vaccine was granted EUA on Dec. 18, the FDA says on its website.

The first doses arrived in theater around Christmas Day, and troops began to be inoculated less than a week after that, Mattorano said.

Clinical trials have found the Moderna vaccine to be more than 94% effective at preventing the illness caused by the coronavirus after two doses, given about 28 days apart, according to a report published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Spangdahlem Air Base also began vaccinating medical professionals and first responders Monday, and Air Force bases in the United Kingdom gave key health care and emergency workers their first jabs last week.

The Army began vaccinating front-line health care personnel in Germany last week and expected to continue this week. Vaccinations are also underway at Naval Support Activity Bahrain, where the 5th Fleet is based.

The vaccine was expected to be delivered this week to more military bases in Belgium, Italy, Portugal and Spain, U.S. European Command said in a statement released Thursday.

But officials at the immunization clinic at Aviano Air Base in Italy said Monday they didn’t expect to receive the vaccine for “a few weeks.”

At Ramstein, 86th Medical Group commander Col. Ryan Mihata was one of the first to get the jab.

“I trust the science completely,” he said.

But troops who find the speed with which the vaccine was developed and approved unsettling can opt out of having the vaccine. At Ramstein, they have to show up at the gym, where their choice is noted in their medical records.

If too many decline to be inoculated, it will be an uphill battle to vaccinate enough people to get herd immunity, said Mihata.

Herd immunity occurs when a large enough proportion of the population is vaccinated and has antibodies against a disease, preventing its spread to those who can't be immunized. Measles, mumps, polio and chickenpox are examples of infectious diseases that are now rare in the U.S. because of herd immunity.

Mihata estimated that achieving herd immunity for COVID-19 would require about 60% of the population to get the jab.

“It’s really all we have,” he said. “The handwashing, the distancing and the mask-wearing – it’s not helping us to flatten the curve significantly, so we need more.”

Despite toughening up lockdown measures in December after 28 days of “lockdown light” failed to have an impact on the virus, Germany’s 16 states on Monday had, on average, just over 139 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days. That's nearly three times more than the benchmark of 50 new cases per 100,000, set by the country’s public health agency, the Robert Koch Institute.

The Defense Department has established phases for American military personnel to get the vaccine, starting with front-line health care, emergency and public safety workers, and working down to healthy individuals. The timeline for administering the vaccine to everyone who wants it is unknown, officials said.

Ramstein has enough of the vaccine to give all first responders, firefighters and medics a first dose, Mihata said.

Once they've been vaccinated, “we’re going to open it up to the next category of folks that are eligible,” he said.

None of the vaccine will be left on the shelf, he said.

Stars and Stripes reporters Chad Garland, Norman Llamas and Karin Zeitvogel contributed to this report.

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Correction: Jessica Campfield was misidentified in an earlier version of this article.

Chief Master Sgt. Alex Angulo, security forces manager for the 569th U.S. Forces Police Squadron, receives a first dose of the Moderna vaccine against COVID-19 on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.