Pentagon to roll out 44,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses to start, officials say

Officials from the Pentagon said Wednesday they plan to offer a phased rollout of the new COVID-19 vaccine to Department of Defense personnel. The Pentagon’s vaccine program will roll out with 44,000 initial doses, which Defense Health Agency Director Lieutenant General Ronald Place called “a controlled pilot” at 13 locations in the United States and three locations in Korea, Japan and Germany.

The first military personnel to get the vaccines will be healthcare providers and support, emergency services and public safety personnel, which officials said will be in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccine advisory committee recommendations. Next will be national critical capabilities personnel, including select senior leaders, then people who will be deployed. 

Leaders anticipate the phased rollout to cover 60% of personnel, at which point the vaccine supply should be enough to distribute doses the way the department offers the flu vaccine.

While getting vaccinated will be voluntary, senior leadership will get the vaccine to help demonstrate confidence in its safety and efficacy, said Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Thomas McCaffery. Officials said those leaders would include acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, among others.

The first 44,000 doses will be of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, one of two vaccines so far expected to be granted emergency use authorizations by the Food and Drug Administration. Both the Pfizer vaccine and the one from Moderna must be kept very cold, presenting a challenge for distribution. The vaccine by Pfizer/BioNTech needs to be kept at minus 70 degrees Celsius, while the vaccine by Moderna must be shipped at minus 20 degrees Celsius.

Place said the locations were in part chosen for their cold storage capabilities as well as the number of people at the locations who are eligible to receive the shots. The vaccines will go out in batches of 975 doses, which all have to be given.

Full vaccination will depend on how many doses the department gets and over what period of time.

The U.S. is anticipated to get 40 million doses of the vaccines, both of which must be given twice for full effectiveness, by the end of the year. State officials in some states have said they anticipate prioritizing people at greater risk of contracting the disease, including elderly people and healthcare workers. 

The disease is surging in the U.S., which has reported more than 15 million cases and 286,000 deaths from the virus since the pandemic began, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. President-elect Joe Biden has said the incoming administration will ensure the country will have 100 million doses available during his first 100 days in office.

The briefing comes a day after the U.K. rolled out the first jabs of the Pfizer vaccine to its citizens, starting with a 90-year-old woman.