U.S. troops and military families stationed abroad should have access to at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by mid-May, Pentagon officials said Thursday.
The Defense Department is working through supply chain challenges presented late last month when 15 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the single-dose immunization that the department planned to use overseas along with the Moderna vaccine, were ruined in manufacturing.
While the DoD plans to expand eligibility for the vaccine to all beneficiaries by April 19, in line with the nationwide expansion announced earlier this week by President Joe Biden, the department is working to ensure that overseas personnel and family members will have access to at least one dose in May.
According to Lt. Gen. Ronald Place, director of the Defense Health Agency, the DoD has, by proportion, shipped more vaccine doses to overseas locations than within the United States -- 14% of its doses to a population that makes up 7% of those eligible under the DoD.
But in many locations, vaccinations continue to be available only to high-priority groups, and appointments for second doses have been canceled.
During a press conference Thursday, Place and service medical officials sought to validate the frustrations over vaccine distribution that have been expressed by military personnel, family members and civilians stationed across Europe, Africa and Asia.
"If you're a service member stationed overseas or a family member likewise stationed overseas, and you haven't received a vaccine, and you don't know when you'll be able to, these numbers mean nothing," Place said.
Even before the mishap at a Baltimore production facility, military families were frustrated by the distribution process to overseas locations. Last month, they began reaching out to their congressional representatives for answers on the slow pace of U.S. vaccine distribution in Europe and elsewhere.
Officials at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany acknowledged that they were trying to make sure everyone who had received a first dose of Moderna got a second dose within the recommended 42-day window.
Landstuhl assured patients that it would prioritize those who had received one dose in the event of further delays.
"We understand the frustration many in our community are facing," officials wrote this week on Landstuhl's Facebook page. "While we've been hesitant to make predictions on future vaccine deliveries we are confident that vaccine allocations to Europe will increase throughout April."
Place said the overseas community was slated to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and the loss of the doses during a mix-up at a Baltimore plant "affected the DoD allocations, as is true for all U.S. jurisdictions."
The Baltimore facility, operated by Emergent BioSolutions, accidentally mixed ingredients of the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson shots, and all of them had to be destroyed. The Biden administration subsequently put Johnson & Johnson in charge of the plant, which also will no longer make the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Meanwhile, the DoD is "actively exploring other means to offset this temporary shortage," Place said.
To date, the DoD has administered roughly 2.25 million vaccines, he said, and it plans to open up eligibility for vaccinations to all military personnel and beneficiaries beginning April 19.
He added, however, that even when eligibility opens up, those who had priority earlier and declined to get the vaccine will have priority should they decide they want one.
In Europe and Africa, roughly 37,000 of 150,000 eligible Army personnel and family members have received at least one dose, while 17,000 have been fully vaccinated, according to Army Maj. Gen. Jill Faris, Interim G-3/5/7 for U.S. Army Medical Command.
Faris added that the Army should be able to vaccinate 100,000 people "in the coming weeks."
According to Rear Adm. Gayle Shaffer, the Navy's deputy surgeon general, 50% of eligible sailors, Marines, beneficiaries and civilian employees across Europe have been vaccinated.
Roughly 35% of the 53,000 eligible Air Force personnel in Europe have received at least one dose, and 22% have been fully vaccinated. In the Pacific, 26% of 109,000 eligible airmen and dependents have received at least one dose, while 20% have been fully vaccinated, according to Maj. Gen. Robert Miller, the Air Force's deputy surgeon general.
According to service officials, the Department of the Navy has vaccinated roughly 35% of its active forces, including Marines, and the Air Force has administered at least one dose to 11.1% of its force and fully vaccinated 7.2%.
Faris said the Army has administered 688,000 doses. She declined to say what percent of the force has been vaccinated.
Officials said that acceptance rates are on the rise as those who took a "wait and see" attitude are now seeking the vaccine.
"There has been an overall trend from more people accepting the vaccine. It appears the educational efforts are working," Miller said.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the DoD has logged more than 271,000 cases of COVID-19, including 177,359 among U.S. service members. More than 330 people, including troops, civilians, contractors and family members, have died.