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All defense personnel, families eligible for coronavirus vaccines starting April 19

Sgt. Maj. John Shannon receives the COVID-19 vaccine from Sgt. Ryan Kamanu, a medic with the 466th Medical Company Area Support, at the the Role II medical facility at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, on March 15, 2021.

CHRISTIE R. SMITH/U.S. ARMY NATIONAL GUARD

By CAITLIN M. KENNEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 8, 2021

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WASHINGTON — All service members and Defense Department beneficiaries will be eligible for a vaccine appointment by April 19, despite the lag in vaccines for people serving overseas, defense officials said Thursday.

The Defense Department’s decision follows President Joe Biden’s announcement Tuesday that all American adults will be eligible for a vaccine on that date, Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Place, the director of the Defense Health Agency, said during a briefing at the Pentagon.

About 40% of military vaccination sites already have opened appointments to people in the last tier or “phase 2,” which includes a younger, healthier population, he said. Even with eligibility for vaccination opened to all, the tier system will not be going away.

“If individuals in our initial tiers now want an immunization, they still get to the front of the schedule,” Place said.

He also said the military is seeing more people who “were taking a wait-and-see approach” come forward to receive their vaccine.

Place acknowledged the lag in vaccination rates at overseas locations due to the limited options of receiving a shot. Thus the Defense Department had decided to send double the amount of vaccines to overseas locations compared to the size of the eligible population, according to Place.

Many personnel and family members in Europe with high-risk medical conditions are still waiting to get their first shots, Stars and Stripes reported Wednesday. About 25% of the adult Army community in Europe has received at least one dose, and 11% of beneficiaries have been fully vaccinated, Gino Mattorano, a spokesman for Regional Health Command Europe, said Tuesday.

In the U.S. general population, 42% of those older than 18 have received at least one dose, and 24% have been fully vaccinated, according to data as of Tuesday from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The Army understands the situation that our families overseas are in because of the limited access to vaccines. We have shipped more vaccine in proportion to stateside locations to try to address those challenges with access to the vaccines,” said Maj. Gen. Jill Faris, the interim operations chief at Army Medical Command.

Rear Adm. Gayle Shaffer, the Navy’s deputy surgeon general, said 50% of the service population overseas has received at least one vaccine dose. The Navy is also starting to prioritize vaccinations for those service members and their families who will be moving overseas.

During the past three weeks, the Air Force has been prioritizing their vaccine distribution overseas to their European and Pacific commands, according to Maj. Gen. Robert Miller, the Air Force’s deputy surgeon general. Of the 53,000 eligible people connected to Air Force European Command, 35% have had at least one vaccine, and 22% have been fully vaccinated as of Sunday, he said. Of the 109,000 eligible in its Pacific command, 26% of eligible people have had at least one dose, and 20% have been fully vaccinated.

The recent news that 15 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine had to be destroyed due to contamination has affected the DOD’s allotment of that vaccine, according to Place. The department’s supply of the one-dose vaccine was primarily meant for overseas locations so defense officials are looking for other ways to offset the shortage, he said.

Despite the shortage of the J&J vaccine, the Defense Department is distributing more Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to locations than in past weeks, Place said, and the facilities are also increasing their vaccination operations, with some planning to be vaccinating seven days a week.

“Based on current projections of supply, of medical personnel available to perform vaccinations, and the current interest of individuals wishing to be vaccinated, we expect that we will be able to deliver at least an initial dose to every eligible [overseas] person who wants one by the middle of May,” Place said.

While Place would not provide the number of service members who have been vaccinated overseas, he said it was between 10% to 15% higher than the rates of service members in the United States. This is in part due to the tiered approach to vaccinated deployed personnel first.

“In particular, those who are actively employed in missions in the [U.S. Central Command] area of operations or any of the [combatant commands]. But it is significantly higher in [overseas] locations than it is here in the United States.”

A request to the Pentagon for the vaccination rate of service members in the United States was not returned Thursday afternoon.

kenney.caitlin@stripes.com
Twitter: @caitlinmkenney