COVID-19 vaccinations may be widely available to military families at a “significant number” of military treatment facilities sometime in April, the director of the Defense Health Agency said during a panel discussion Thursday.
And on a national level, vaccinations may be available to high school children sometime in the fall, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.
While the vaccinations are not currently approved for children, studies are being conducted. “By the time we get to fall of this year, maybe not on the very first day of school, but certainly in the context of the fall term, it is likely we’ll have enough information to be able to vaccinate high school level children,” Fauci said, during a virtual panel discussion led by Blue Star Families and the American Red Cross.
Based on data that will be available by the end of 2021, Fauci said, children in elementary school will likely be vaccinated in the first quarter of 2022.
Most military treatment facilities are currently in phase 1B, or 1C of the eligibility for vaccinations, said Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Place, director of the Defense Health Agency. Phase 2 is where any other Tricare beneficiary becomes eligible. According to Defense Health Agency, there are more than 5 million Tricare beneficiaries between the ages of 18 and 64, most of which would be in that Phase 2 eligibility category; an unknown number of those people will get vaccinated at civilian locations when they open to wider eligibility.
“I see a significant number of locations moving into that Tier 2 sometime in April,” Place said. Tier 2, or Phase 2, includes the general community of Tricare beneficiaries, regardless of age or underlying medical conditions, currently excluding children.
The military treatment facilities are following a tiered approach for vaccinating service members, family members and retirees, similar to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.
Those eligible for vaccination vary from location to location.
Phase 1B includes select defense forces and beneficiaries age 75 years old and older, frontline essential workers, such as teachers, child care staff, and those who are involved in postal service, public transportation, as well as commissary and food service employees.
Phase 1C includes eligible beneficiaries age 65-74 and those ages 16-64 with increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, as defined by the CDC.
Phase 2 includes everyone not in the first two categories.
About 1.3 million doses have been administered to those eligible in the military community around the world, and 85 percent of vaccine supply available has been administered, Place said. Within DoD, he said, “we’re using our supply as fast as we get it in.” The number of vaccination sites have increased from 16 locations in late December, to 335 locations. Personnel are “being very careful with every dose we have,” he said, with a loss rate of 0.04 percent.
About one-third of troops have declined the vaccination. Regarding the hesitancy to get vaccinated, Place said, “we’re monitoring the uptake among everyone – service members, family members, retirees, civilians.” He said he spoke to some service member recently who said they wanted to wait because they feel others are at greater risk for COVID than themselves.
The military medical community is seeing low rates of adverse effects from vaccinations in the military community, similar to what they see in a normal year with flu shots, Place said.
Place also noted the safety records of the approved vaccines nationwide are exceptional, as 80 million doses have already been administered, with a very low number of side effects, and no known deaths. “What if there were 80 million cases of COVID with no vaccines?” With the COVID death rate, there would be about 1.5 million deaths per 80 million cases, he said.
The COVID infection itself “is horrifically more dangerous than the vaccination,” across all demographics, Place said. He and Fauci noted that there are also long-term effects among some younger, healthy people who get COVID itself.
Place and Fauci said it’s important to get the vaccination to protect those around you — family, friends, colleagues, people you don’t know. “The sooner we all get the vaccination, the sooner the pandemic ends,” Place said.
A number of civilian jurisdictions are farther along in their vaccination queues, and many families may able to get vaccinated outside the military. Place emphasized the vaccination is free for Tricare beneficiaries, regardless of whether they are getting their shot at a military facility, or at a civilian hospital, pharmacy, or other location.
The shots are being offered to all service members before deployment, and are given with enough time to get both doses beforehand, Place said. Fauci said it’s extremely important for service members to get these vaccinations, for force protection, even though the overall majority are young and healthy. He noted the need to avoid future COVID outbreaks similar to those that have happened on Navy ships.
In a recorded message, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he understands the fear and anxiety surrounding the vaccinations, and realizes it’s sometimes hard to know who to believe. “We owe it to our teammates and their loved ones to make sure they know the facts, the facts, and to make sure they all have the information available to them before we try to make the vaccine available to them. That’s why events like this are so important,” he said.
He noted that the safety records of the vaccines is public information, at www.cdc.gov and www.defense.gov. “We have to remember this is a personal decision. Real people have to make that decision. I encourage you to talk to your doctor, just like I did, and talk to your family and those who count on you. Think about how your decision will impact on them,” Austin said.
“In my experience, people armed with the best information, with facts, will make the right decision. We need every voice in this fight, to help get word out that the vaccines really are safe.”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.