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DOD officials provide COVID-19 response update

Image of Military personnel wearing a face mask handling prescription refills at a pharmacy. Navy Hospitalman Benjamin Mason, a Hospital Corpsman assigned to Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Command Corpus Christi locates a prescription refill before delivering it to a patient at the Naval Health Clinic Corpus Christi drive-thru pharmacy. Drive-thru pharmacy service is just one of the measures in place at NHC Corpus Christi aimed at keeping staff and patients safe during the COVID-19 pandemic (Photo by: Dale Davis, Naval Health Clinic Corpus Christi, Texas).

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Three Defense Department officials spoke at a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the department's support for the COVID-19 response.

Robert G. Salesses, performing the duties of assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security, was asked what the department is doing to address the concern that a third of all service members are reportedly not planning to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

"There's a lot of misinformation out there about the vaccine. The vaccine is safe," he said at the Feb. 25 hearing. "I think that what we need to do is ensure that we have the right level of education and awareness and use our military chain of command to educate and train people and to clear up those misconceptions."

Salesses added that the commands have been getting involved for the last 60 days, providing education forums, holding town halls, and communicating through other means.

Although the DOD cannot mandate service members to receive the vaccine because it is being made available on an emergency use authorization, Salesses said the department has implemented social distancing, mask wearing and telework on an unprecedented scale, as well as testing and contact tracing.

A senator remarked that 80% of needles and syringes in use in the U.S. originated from China.

Stacy A. Cummings, performing the duties of under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said that figure was correct and that the department has assisted the Department of Health and Human Services with transportation to get those needles and syringes into the U.S. to support the delivery of vaccines.

She noted that the U.S. could and should increase production domestically in the future.

"We have an opportunity to leverage both the authorities of the Defense Production Act and the authorities of the Economy Act to invest in syringes and needles. We have actually invested in some innovative technology for vaccine delivery to increase the domestic production here in the United States so that those capabilities can be made here. We are on the road to seeking solutions to that problem, we have made some investments to date. And I think that there are more investments to be made in the future," she said.

In addition to leveraging the Economy Act and the DPA, Cummings said the department has also found the CARES Act useful in Title 3 funding.

The DOD has also played a vital role supporting interagencies in acquiring and delivering medical resources, to include personal protective equipment, and to establishing and strengthening the domestic medical industrial base, she noted.

Army Gen. Gustave F. Perna, chief operating officer of the federal COVID-19 response for vaccine and therapeutics, also testified.

"This virus attacked our nation. It attacked our way of life, and it impacted every American. But it became obvious that our nation had never fought this type of enemy before, and that there was no single government or private organization that had the capacity, capability or expertise to execute the mission of defeating this virus," Perna said.

"Through unprecedented collaboration from our best public and private experts in science, logistics, manufacturing and security, our nation rose to the challenge, because of our whole-of-America approach and the collective efforts of the federal, state and local governments, private industry, and the health care community," he added.

Perna said there will be enough vaccines available to all Americans by this summer, and there have already been about 90 million doses delivered across all states and territories to date.

"We will defeat this virus. We will win. We have a lot of work in front of us. And we will not rest until every American has access to vaccines and therapeutics," he added.

Perna was asked to give a candid assessment of what the department and other agencies need to do in the coming months to ensure the nation is better prepared for similar disasters.

The general said the U.S. must plan for the role it will take in ensuring that the rest of the world gets the vaccine. Planning and preparations must also be made should there be a need for booster vaccinations against future variants. And finally, decisions will need to be made about how much manufacturing and supply chain capability should be resident in the U.S.

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