The US military has seen a 55% jump in Covid-19 vaccinations among active-duty service members over the last month, a senior defense official told CNN. The increase comes after the Pentagon opened up vaccinations to the general population on April 19.
Of the approximately 1.4 million active duty service members, some 500,000 had received their first dose one month ago. Now, about 775,000 troops have received their first dose. The sharp increase in vaccinations was made possible as the military opened vaccinations to all service members, allowing those who weren’t in the high-priority Tier 1 category to become eligible. However, it’s unclear at this point if the surge in vaccinations will continue or if it will plateau.
In its efforts to promote vaccinations, the military has struggled with vaccine hesitancy in a population that is generally young, healthy and sees little incentive to accept a vaccine that is not compulsory. In late-April, the vaccine declination rate for II Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune was 67%, even as the declination rate throughout the Marine Corps was 36%.
The battle against Covid-19 has been a top priority for the Biden administration and for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who has put out multiple messages and statements emphasizing the safety and efficacy of the vaccines.
On Monday, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks and Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Gen. John Hyten issued a memo which called coronavirus “the greatest proximate challenge to our nation’s security.” Though the memo does not explicitly encourage vaccine incentives, it does urge unit leaders to “consider utilizing techniques such as stand-downs, vaccination days, organization days, and incorporating vaccination opportunities into unit training events.” It goes on to encourage the use of existing policies and procedures “to the greatest extent possible, as appropriate and authorize, to encourage vaccination.”
Individual bases and installations have begun incentivizing the vaccine with days off and increased freedom of movement, framing vaccination as an important part of military readiness.
Speaking at a press briefing Thursday afternoon, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. Terry Adirim said that every combatant command overseas has “now vaccinated” people “both partially and fully at rates that are higher than the United States,” during a press briefing about the Department of Defense’s response to the pandemic.
“In some cases, at extraordinarily high rates,” Adirim added.
Last week, the Defense Department eased mask requirements, allowing those who are fully vaccinated to remove their masks in department facilities. The new guidelines applied to both indoor and outdoor locations, and they followed updates guidance for the Centers for Disease Control.
As of Wednesday, some 351 Defense Department personnel, including civilians, dependents, and contractors, had died of coronavirus out of a total of 293,788 cases.
CNN’s Ellie Kaufman contributed reporting.