The Department of Defense is readying to receive both the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines within the next three weeks, while the services work to prioritize their distribution.
Top on the list, at least for the Navy, will be health care workers, followed by base first responders and safety personnel — “people likely to come in contact with people who are infected,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said during a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing Wednesday on Navy and Marine Corps readiness.
These groups will be followed by the strategic forces, such as sailors on ballistic missile submarines and those who work on the cyber mission, according to Gilday. Those set to deploy in the next three months will come next.
“We have a good count of what those numbers are, and if there’s anything we are really good at, it’s mass immunization in the U.S. military,” Gilday told lawmakers.
The other services have not announced their prioritization plans, but Pentagon officials have said they would follow recommendations of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccine advisory panel, which voted Tuesday to distribute the first shots to health care workers and those living in long-term care facilities.
As the DoD maintains no long-term care facilities and nursing homes, that leaves military medical personnel, civilian workers and contractors at military medical facilities at the top of the list.
According to Gilday, Pfizer’s vaccine will be distributed at 10 U.S. locations, and from there, to all DoD military treatment facilities once it receives emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, an approval that could come Dec. 10.
Also, Gilday said “three or four” overseas locations will receive the Moderna vaccine, which the FDA will consider for an EUA on Dec. 17.
The reason for the difference between domestic and overseas distribution to installations lies squarely with the complexity of distributing the Pfizer vaccine, which must be kept at a temperature of around minus-80 degrees Fahrenheit, and is good for only about five days after it thaws.
“The Moderna vaccine … is allowed to be refrigerated for up to 30 days. So you have a little bit more flexibility,” Gilday said.
Both immunizations are based on a new vaccine technology that uses nanoparticles to deliver bits of genetic code, or RNA, to cells, instructing them to produce viral proteins that trigger an immune response.
During a forum Wednesday at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said the military has played a significant role in the nation’s response to the pandemic, including gearing up for distributing a vaccine.
“Operation Warp Speed leader Gen. Gus Perna is one of the senior logisticians, a great human being, and he’s out there banging away,” Milley said. “He’s going to make sure that we distribute the COVID vaccines nationwide here in a very short order.”
At the start of the pandemic, when cases were mainly centralized in urban areas such as New York, Seattle and Los Angeles, 62,000 U.S. service members, including Reserve and National Guard troops, were involved in COVID-19 response.
According to Milley, between 20,000 to 23,000 service members remain on the task as of this week.
“The military has made a contribution to protecting society and also we’ve protected ourselves in the process,” Milley said.
To date, 80,592 service members have tested positive for the virus, including 24,332 in the last month alone.
To combat the spike in cases, the services have reinstituted protection measures on installations. A month ago, 66% of bases were cleared for travel. That figure has dropped to 48% with the Navy’s decision in late November to raise the health protection levels at their bases to “Charlie” — a designation that limits base access and restricts travel.
Both Gilday and Milley said the services learned much from the outbreak of COVID-19 aboard the carrier Theodore Roosevelt, which infected more than 1,200 sailors and killed one, the only active-duty service member to die to date from the virus.
Gilday said the lessons learned regarding testing can be applied to vaccine rollout.
“We feel pretty confident that once we get the vaccine distributed, now that we have the prioritization well thought out, the vaccination will happen pretty quickly.”
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