Coronavirus

Pentagon deploys troops to fuel COVID-19 vaccine drive

President Joe Biden, speaks about the economy in the State Dinning Room of the White House, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon will deploy more than 1,100 troops to five vaccination centers in what will be the first wave of increased military support for the White House campaign to get more Americans vaccinated against COVID-19.

President Joe Biden has called for setting up 100 mass vaccination centers around the country within a month. Two of the five new military teams will go to vaccination centers opening in California. Coronavirus senior adviser Andy Slavitt said military personnel will arrive at those centers in a little over a week. Three additional centers are expected to be announced soon.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has asked the Pentagon to supply as many as 10,000 service members to staff 100 centers. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin approved the initial five teams, but the others will be approved in separate tranches as FEMA identifies the other site locations.

Each of the five military teams includes 222 personnel, including 80 who will give the vaccines, as well as nurses and other support staff. The teams would be able to provide about 6,000 shots a day.

The five teams represent a growing use of the active duty military to a vaccination campaign that already involves nearly 100 National Guard teams in 29 states across the country. National Guard leaders told The Associated Press that they are now considering training additional Guard members to give shots, so that they can also expand vaccinations in more remote and rural portions of their states.

Gen. Dan Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said the Guard has the ability to field about 200 additional teams. Training other medical personnel to give the vaccination shots, he said, would potentially provide more.

“If we reach the point where we’ve fully implemented all of our folks who can (give shots), then they’re looking at potential training opportunities if we’re going to need more than that,” said Hokanson. “We’re going to do everything to make a difference and meet whatever that need is.”

The Pentagon has said that the FEMA teams could be a mix of active duty, National Guard and Reserves. But Hokanson and Maj. Gen. Jerry Fenwick, director of the Guard’s Office of the Joint Surgeon, said that at this point, the FEMA teams are more likely going to be filled largely by active duty troops. The Guard, they said, will probably be tapped by their governors for use in their own states. are more likely to be used in remote, rural locations.

Guard leaders said the close to 100 mobile vaccination teams already active are delivering more than 50,000 shots a day.

“As more vaccines come on line, there’s surely going to be more demand for vaccinators,” said Fenwick.

Pentagon officials have made it clear that they are being careful about tapping National Guard and Reserves, because in many cases those service members are already working in medical jobs in their civilian lives at local hospitals and medical centers. Hokanson noted that while the Guard could staff as many as 600 vaccine teams, he has to cut that number about in half because of those types of civilian job restrictions.

He said that so far Guard members are only operating in their own states, but could go to neighboring states if needed in the future, as long as they have enough teams.

The troop deployment came as Biden invoked a Cold War-era law called the Defense Production Act to help bolster manufacturing of vaccines, at-home COVID-19 testing kits and nitrile gloves used by health care workers and vaccinators. Referred to as the DPA, the law in essence allows the government to assign missions to private companies during national emergencies.

Tim Manning, the White House’s COVID-19 supply coordinator, said the administration was looking to help drugmaker Pfizer clear a bottleneck around fill-and-finish capabilities with vaccine production by giving the drugmaker first priority to access needed supplies.

Manning said also said the government is investing in six manufacturers to develop at-home and point-of-care COVID-19 tests, with the goal of producing 60 million tests by the end of the summer. Earlier in the week, the White House announced a $230 million contract with Ellume, manufacturer of an at-home test approved by the Food and Drug Administration. No prescription is required for the over-the-counter test.

“The country is well behind where we need to be in testing,” said Manning. Due to contract issues, he said he could not yet reveal the names of the companies.

Another round of contracts will build capacity to produce surgical gloves in the U.S., including processing the raw materials for the gloves. There were widespread shortages at the start of the pandemic last year.

Manning said the goal is to produce more than 1 billion nitrile gloves domestically by the end of this year.

Currently about 6.9 million Americans have received the full two-dose regimen required to get maximum protection from the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. That translates to about 2% of the U.S. population.

To reach widespread or “herd” immunity — about 70% to 85% of Americans must be vaccinated. The U.S. is in a race with the virus, which is also spawning mutations that may prove resistant to vaccines.

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