The only vaccine provider in Washington not fully aiding the state’s immunization tracking happens to be among the largest: the Department of Defense. Shots given at military bases and Veterans’ Affairs hospitals need to be disclosed to state and local health officials, because those nonfederal agencies have been put in charge of many aspects of pandemic response. 

The historically large military presence in Washington state makes this data too important to disregard. About 8% of the state population — more than 600,000 people — is active or retired military, according to the most recent federal count, from 2018. Add in the military family members, civilian workers and contractors eligible for base vaccinations, and the population potentially getting shots from military sources is significant for local health authorities.

Health agencies need good information for effective outreach to unvaccinated populations. Business operators and school boards ought to have credible data to determine their needed precautions. 

The Times’ reporter Mike Reicher found this unacceptable data chasm resulted from having separate vaccine provider ecosystems operating on military bases and off. And although Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM) agreed to provide the state Department of Health officials with vaccination statistics by the recipients’ county of residence, that does not go far enough to help effectively manage the pandemic response. 

Washington’s state immunization database contains the state’s confidential record of who has been vaccinated. But the military does not provide its detailed information. Health systems across the country have been hamstrung during the pandemic by this federal policy. San Diego County, home to a cluster of Navy and Marine bases, concedes in its weekly vaccine reports that data about military doses is unavailable, for example.

JBLM’s vaccine reporting progress doesn’t help the state calculate fully accurate numbers. A person who got a shot on the base and later told their nonmilitary doctor about it would be entered into state records by that doctor — and would also be in the military’s shots-given data. The state cannot risk double-counting an unknowable number of people. Getting vaccinations delivered to tame the pandemic is too important for sloppy accounting. 

The federal decision to have states and local governments manage the COVID-19 fight created this problem. States were left on their own to procure supplies for testing, treatment and, later, vaccination without good help from the federal government. Vaccine clinics were stood up on military bases in parallel with civilian systems, rather than in tandem.

But bases aren’t sealed environments; people — and the virus — move between military sites and the civilian world constantly. Management of the pandemic must do a better job of taking this into account. Sound decisions require sound data. Until the military fully commits to sharing vaccination records states securely hold for other citizens, the fight against COVID-19 will be needlessly hobbled.