Vaccine supplies, base populations dictate when US troops in Japan can receive coronavirus shots
TOKYO – U.S. Army Japan on Saturday began inoculating the families of Defense Department civilian employees and contractors against the coronavirus at its Camp Zama headquarters and nearby installations.
That put the Army out front among U.S. military commands in Japan that are administering the vaccine in order of descending priorities, starting with frontline health workers down to healthy members of the military population, including family members.
By contrast, Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni began its first phase of inoculations Tuesday after receiving an initial Moderna vaccine shipment the previous day, according to its Facebook page.
Why one base has inoculated three categories of recipients and another only recently received its supply comes down to vaccine availability and the “unique requirements of the local population,” said U.S. Forces Japan spokesman, Col. Robert Firman, in a Tuesday email to Stars and Stripes.
“We have experienced no serious issues with the vaccine distribution,” he wrote, “and as production of the vaccine increases, we expect supplies to arrive more quickly.”
The first shipments of the Moderna vaccine, one of two approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, arrived at six U.S. bases in Japan on Dec. 26 and two days later at installations in South Korea.
Military leaders have only estimated when they think more doses will arrive. The first shipment to Japan consisted of about 8,000 doses.
The commander of Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Capt. Manning Montagnet, told American Forces Network Radio on Wednesday that a “substantial number” of the base’s population may be inoculated by mid-March.
“It’s a long time coming,” he said.
Vaccine availability depends upon several factors, including a base’s location and the ratio of its population in each of the three categories, Montagnet said.
“The greater message is this, though: It’s coming,” he said.
The U.S. has about 54,000 service members in Japan, from about 2,000 soldiers up to 19,000 sailors, according to USFJ. DOD civilian employees, contractors and their families make up another 45,000.
“We’re at the supply and demand crossroads,” Command Chief Master Sgt. Rick Winegardner said during a Tuesday appearance on AFN Radio. “As we get the vaccines, we’ll continue to get shots in arms. That’s what we’ve told all of our medical treatment facilities – as soon as they come in, shots in arms.”
The Moderna vaccine requires two shots delivered 28 days apart to be totally effective.
During an appearance Wednesday on AFN Radio on Okinawa, Marine Lt. Gen. H. Stacy Clardy, commander of III Marine Expeditionary Force, said his priority is getting the Marines who serve as a rapid response force vaccinated quickly. Clardy said that because the coronavirus is again sweeping across Okinawa, he could not assure U.S. allies in the region that the Marines would be ready if needed.
“That assurance may be lacking,” he said.
About one-third of the Marines offered the vaccine have declined, said a III MEF surgeon, Navy Capt. John Rotruck, who appeared alongside Clardy on AFN. The Moderna shot is voluntary because it was approved by the FDA for emergency use.
Rotruck encouraged everyone to get the vaccine, citing the reliability of the process to develop the vaccine and successful live trials prior to its approval.
Anyone vaccinated must continue to adhere to the three main protocols in place to combat the virus’ spread, Firman, the USFJ spokesman, wrote in his email.
Rotruck said health care experts don’t know enough about how the COVID-19, the coronavirus respiratory disease, is spread to reliably say vaccinated subjects can do without masks, social distancing and frequent handwashing.
Clardy said the vaccine represents the deciding factor in the struggle to end the pandemic, now almost 11 months old.