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COVID vaccinations rise -- but so do concerns of the Delta variant

Military personnel wearing a face mask preparing a COVID-19 vaccine U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Orbie VanCurine, a native of Mansfield, Texas, with Combat Logistics Battalion 22, prepares a COVID-19 vaccine during the opening of the state-run, federally-supported Center City Community Vaccination Center at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia on March 3, 2021. (Photo by: Marine Corps 1st Lt. Kevin Stapleton).

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The active-duty military community is likely to soon hit its target of a 70% coronavirus vaccination rate for troops across the force, military health officials said.

Yet the rising vaccination rates come at a time of renewed concern about COVID-19 as a new strain of the virus - the so-called Delta variant - poses new risks for unvaccinated populations both inside and outside the military.

"More than 68% of active-duty service members have received at least one dose. We project to hit the 70% goal by early- to mid-July," said Max Rose, the outgoing senior advisor to the Secretary of Defense for COVID-19.

Since the COVID-19 vaccines have become available last year, the Department of Defense has administered 7.2 million total doses across the DOD population.

The DOD has also conducted a full strategic review of all COVID-19 policy documents "to ensure they reflect current medical science from public health officials, data scientists and laboratories and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," Rose said when speaking to reporters at the Pentagon on June 30.

Rose offered good news for parents of children who attend schools run by the Department of Defense Education Activity, or DoDEA.

"In the DODEA school system, across the Pacific, Americas and in Europe, roughly three-quarters of our teachers and school staff are vaccinated, making it possible to safely reopen all schools and child development centers for in-person learning," he said.

Dr. Terry Adirim, acting assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said that, as a pediatrician, she is pleased to report that military families overseas have accepted the vaccines "readily, with 77.4% of 16-17-year olds vaccinated and 62.3% of 12-15 year olds."

The vaccines are currently authorized and proven safe for all children ages 12 and over.

The benefits of the vaccines are becoming more urgent as military health officials begin to document the spread of the Delta variant, a mutation of the original coronavirus that is significantly more contagious and can increase the risk of severe disease or hospitalization.

The Delta variant now accounts for about one in five COVID-19 cases in the U.S, and is more likely to be contracted by younger age groups who are not vaccinated.

The DOD is "particularly concerned about the impact of the Delta variant on our unvaccinated population or partially vaccinated personnel and its potential spread in installations that are located in parts of the country with low vaccination rates," Adirim said.

The best way to prevent infection by the Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-19 virus is to get vaccinated, Adirim emphasized.

"We know that one dose of the mRNA vaccines [Pfizer/BioNTech and Modern] is only 30% effective, whereas two are 88% effective," she said.

Health Protection Conditions, the alert level at military installations, "may change in the future based on outbreaks that result from the Delta variant," she added.

"Increasing rates of COVID-19 infection in a local community could lead a local commander to change the HPCON level," she said.

Army Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Ronald Place, director of the Defense Health Agency, said the military so far is seeing the Delta variant in small numbers: "one or two or maybe three at one location."

Military health officials continue to confront concerns about vaccine hesitancy among military personnel, their families, retirees, and beneficiaries, Adirim explained.

"We've centered our vaccination campaign around the principles of increasing accessibility to vaccines, providing opportunities for education, leveraging active-duty personnel polices to promote vaccination, and ensuring engagement at the lowest level to acknowledge and address individual concerns," Adirim said at the June 30 press briefing.

The DOD has performed more than 1.26 million genomic sequencing tests for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. "We've continued to bolster our testing foundation to ensure that this tool of public health surveillance and force protection is here to stay at our installations across the globe, to include the latest genomic sequencing," Rose said.

With genomic sequencing, the military can track the incidence of all COVID-19 variants, from the Alpha variant, which is predominant in the United Kingdom, to the Delta variant, which is expected to become the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the U.S. in a matter of weeks.

However, genomic sequencing of COVID-19 cases takes about two weeks, so the current numbers on the Delta variant in the MHS may be lagging.

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