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Military Health System Marks 1-Year Anniversary for COVID Vaccinations

Image of FEmale Marine gets COVID 19 vaccination in left  arm at Camp LeJeune in December 2020. Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune on December 28, 2020, administered the first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Per the Department of Defense’s strategic plan for distribution and administration of the vaccine, initial recipients of the vaccine were given to frontline health care providers and personnel with the Emergency Department/Trauma Department, Intensive Care Unit and other frontline workers. Vaccines also were given to frontline health care workers and first responders attached to Marine Corps Installations East to include MCAS New River, II MEF, and MARSOC.

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One year ago today, on Dec. 14, 2020, the Military Health System began administering the first COVID-19 vaccine shots.

A year later, the MHS has distributed more than 6.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine and reports 90.1% of active duty service members are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, with an additional 6.4% partially vaccinated.

“The DOD is committed to vaccinating 100% of all active duty service members to ensure maximized readiness to meet the warfighter needs,” said Air Force Col. Jennifer Garrison, deputy assistant director, Operational Medicine, Defense Health Agency (DHA).

Initial vaccinations in late 2020 targeted frontline health care workers who were most at risk of exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.

Looking Back

On Dec. 9, 2020, DOD announced its COVID-19  vaccination plan.

Immediately after the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine on Dec. 11, 2020, the Defense Department mobilized to distribute approximately 44,000 initial doses to 13 military communities.

Among the first medical treatment facilities to receive shipments were Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland; Naval Medical Center San Diego, California; and the Air Force's 59th Medical Wing in San Antonio, Texas.

Those first vaccinations marked the start of a phased and coordinated plan to prioritize, distribute, and administer COVID-19 vaccines to 11.3 million DOD-eligible personnel and beneficiaries.

Military health officials later added Moderna’s two-dose COVID-19 vaccine and the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen single-dose shot to the distribution list as they received FDA emergency use authorization.

By Feb. 22, 2021, the DOD had administered 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines. A month later, the total grew to 2 million doses.

The Rollout Plan

To facilitate the rollout, 17 DHA Immunization Health Division (IHD) specialists stationed throughout the MHS helped military vaccine sites to become experts in COVID-19 vaccination procedures.

“The early days of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout required tremendous time and hard work. But all of us were deeply committed to getting this right,” DHA IHD specialist David Cortez said.

“Maintaining vaccine confidence in anxious patients compels us to handle and manage these vaccines absolutely correctly,” Cortez said.

Dr. Margaret Ryan, medical director for IHD in the Pacific Region, recalled that the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in December 2020 was an intense and critical time in the pandemic. “No one in DHA IHD had a ‘holiday’ last year – but all of us celebrated in the midst of the hard work we were doing,” she said.

Later, in August 2021, as the COVID-19 Delta variant became dominant in the U.S, COVID-19 cases surged. Defense Secretary Austin issued a mandate on Aug. 24, 2021, requiring all members of the Armed Forces under DOD authority on active duty or in the Ready Reserve, including the National Guard, to receive a COVID-19 vaccination.

Keep up with the latest news about the ongoing MHS response to COVID-19 at Health.mil/coronavirus.

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