The Defense Department expects to administer nearly 44,000 doses of a coronavirus vaccine within 48 hours of approval by scientists advising the U.S. government, directing the initial doses to military health care workers and a small set of top defense leaders.
Officials on Wednesday unveiled plans for the pilot phase of distribution of the vaccine from Pfizer, which will take place at 16 military sites in the United States and overseas, based on an allotment from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Eventually, the Pentagon plans to offer a vaccine to all 11 million individuals designated as part of the Defense Department community, including troops, their families, retirees, civilian employees and some contractors.
“We will monitor the uptake and make adjustments to our plans going forward as necessary,” Thomas McCaffery, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, told reporters at the Pentagon.
Officials said that as soon as the Food and Drug Administration issues its “emergency use authorization” for the vaccine developed by Pfizer and the German company BioNTech, the Pentagon will ensure that the doses are at the initial sites, comprising U.S. bases with major medical facilities and three overseas locations, in Germany, Japan and South Korea.
After that, a CDC advisory committee is expected to vote on whether to recommend the vaccine.
“We expect to have shots in arms of DOD personnel within 20 to 48 hours from the time the [committee] issues its final recommendation,” McCaffery said. The people expected to get the first doses would subsequently require a second shot.
McCaffery and other officials said the Pentagon would track any adverse effects from the vaccine and report them to the CDC. Vaccinations for military personnel will be voluntary, at least initially, though that might change after the vaccines get fuller FDA approval.
Acting defense secretary Christopher Miller and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will be among the top officials who get the vaccine in the first tranche, to telegraph to troops the importance of vaccination, officials said.
“What we’re looking at is the department leadership but also the [military] service leadership and then the combatant commands so that we can get that message out to as large a population as possible,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said at the briefing.
About 8 or 9% of military health personnel and first responders are expected to be covered when the first doses are administered. When more vaccine is available, the next set of troops will be drawn from what Pentagon officials refer to as “critical national capabilities,” a group that includes forces that operate the country’s nuclear arsenal, cyber forces and certain Special Operations troops.
As the vaccine is rolled out, existing coronavirus precautions will remain in place, officials said.
The military population, which skews young and relatively healthy, has experienced several coronavirus outbreaks this year. Thirteen uniformed service members have died of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The department will use its tiered prioritization plan to guide distribution of vaccines to the 60% of the Defense Department population. After that, they will be administered using the same guidelines for annual flu shots. The department vaccinates millions of troops, family members and retirees every year.
Officials said they did not know how long it would take to provide the vaccine to everyone who wants it. People who have previously tested positive for the virus will be encouraged to get the vaccine.