Vaccine hesitancy among active-duty personnel is putting them at risk for contracting a more contagious form of the COVID-19, and Defense Department health officials are urging service members to get fully vaccinated.
DoD officials said Wednesday that 68% of active-duty personnel have received at least one dose of the vaccine. But when broken down by service, the Marine Corps has the worst record, at 58%, while the Navy has the highest vaccination rate, at 77%. Some 70% of soldiers have been vaccinated, while 61% of active-duty airmen have received at least one dose.
About 57% of the overall U.S. adult population is fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Delta variant, which originated in India, is more contagious than the original COVID-19 variant and may be more dangerous. Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Place, who heads the Defense Health Agency, said that of the more than 6,000 DoD beneficiaries whose COVID-19 infections have been sequenced genetically, just 25 were the Delta variant. But, he said, 22 of those 25 cases occurred within the last two weeks.
“So far the majority are not the delta variant, but we are starting to see it in our population,” Place said during a Pentagon news conference Wednesday.
Place said military personnel who have had only one of their two vaccine doses number in the “tens of thousands,” and DoD is contacting every service member who hasn’t yet completed immunization.
Patients are not considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after their second vaccine dose of an mRNA vaccine or a single dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.
Dr. Terry Adirim, acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, said the rise of the variant “poses a threat to the return to normal.”
“We are particularly concerned with the threat impact of the Delta variant on our unvaccinated or partially vaccinated population,” Adirim said.
According to Place, 21 people are currently being hospitalized for COVID-19 in the military health system, down from 240 in January. Of the those 21, none were vaccinated.
“The benefits of vaccination are abundantly clear. … It’s compelling evidence,” Place said.
The DoD has seen 303,618 cases of COVID-19 since the beginning of the outbreak in 2020. More than 4,100 were hospitalized and 357 have died, including 26 service members and 14 military family members.
As of Wednesday, travel restrictions have been lifted at 214 of 230 DoD installations worldwide, down one from Monday. Fort Belvoir, Virginia, was added back on the list of places where travel is limited.
“We anticipate that health protection conditions could change at some of our installations in the future based on outbreaks that result from the high transmutability of the Delta variant,” Adirim said.
DoD is tracking 30 cases of heart inflammation in patients who received the COVID-19 vaccine, a rare side effect of the immunization.
But, Place added, the number is small compared with the “hundreds” of military health beneficiaries who developed the inflammation, or myocarditis, after contracting COVID-19.
“The risk to the heart is markedly higher from an infection as it is from a vaccination,” Place said.
— Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.
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