LOS ANGELES (AP) – The U.S. military on Wednesday began administering vaccines at coronavirus vaccination centers in Texas and New York and announced that service members will begin staffing four centers in Florida and one in Philadelphia next week.
The expanded vaccination effort came when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with military commanders overseeing the COVID-19 response effort. He also visited the vaccination center in Los Angeles, the first to include the new active duty military teams that are being developed.
The Biden administration has said that delivering the vaccine to Americans is a top priority. The Pentagon is increasing the deployment of what federal authorities say could be as many as 100 vaccination teams across the country.
The intensified efforts reflect the extent to which the coronavirus has devastated the United States, killing more than 500,000 Americans. While average daily deaths and new infections have dropped, some experts say too few Americans have been inoculated for the vaccine to make enough of a difference. Instead, the decline is attributed to the passage of holidays, more people staying home for the winter, and better adherence to mask rules and social distancing.
California has the highest number of coronavirus deaths in the nation, with more than 49,000. Austin is touring the federally-run vaccination site on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles, which opened last week. The site, on the east side of Los Angeles, is staffed by a 222-member military team from Fort Carson, Colorado, and highlights an effort by state leaders to make vaccines more available to communities hardest hit by the pandemic.
Watching the line of cars slowly parade through the parking area on campus as people in their cars were shot, Austin spoke to troops who have been distributing vaccines. A soldier in the area told Austin how excited he was to be able to give his own mother a chance.
“It almost made me cry,” Austin said later, recounting the story.
Speaking to another group of service members who work at the walk-in vaccination site, Austin said they need to bring the leadership, coordination and compassionate skills they have learned from doing this to their next mission.
Austin told reporters later that the military is learning every day how to make the process more efficient. And he said that one thing that has been successful has been the mobile vaccination teams, and he intends to speak with agency leaders about the possibility of expanding them.
Despite the high death toll in the state, rates of new infections and hospitalizations continue to plummet across the state. Health officials said Sunday that the number of patients in California hospitals with COVID-19 has fallen below 7,000, a drop of more than a third in two weeks. The total number of cases is close to 3.45 million.
The positivity rate of people being tested has been dropping for weeks, meaning fewer people will end up in hospitals.
On his first trip outside of Washington as chief of defense, Austin stopped in Colorado at the US Northern Command and met with his commander, Air Force General Glen VanHerck, who also heads the Aerospace Defense Command. from North America. Military officials told reporters traveling with Austin that service members are administering 6,000 injections a day in Los Angeles and that they will increase to that number in downtown Houston, where the 222-member team began work Wednesday.
Smaller teams of 139 members began operating in New York City’s boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, and in Dallas, which has two. They are expected to deliver 3,000 injections a day soon.
Austin has so far approved the deployment of 25 military vaccination teams, which come in two sizes, 222 members and 139 members, and total about 4,700 service members. So far, 11 have started or will start next week.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has requested 100 such teams, putting the Defense Department on track to deploy up to 19,000 troops if all are needed. The number of troops is almost double what federal authorities initially thought would be necessary.
The five military teams moving to cities this week include 139-member units going to Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville in Florida, and a 222-member team going to Philadelphia.
The military has also sent three 25-member medical units to cities in New Jersey and is sending one to the US Virgin Islands.
Military officials said the development of new sites will depend on how much vaccine is available and whether states request the assistance and can provide suitable locations.
Separately, in a video message to the military force, Austin urged service members to get vaccinated. The injection is voluntary because the vaccines have not yet obtained final approval from the Food and Drug Administration. And while rates vary, military units around the world say that 30-60% of the troops offered the vaccine are declining. Military leaders said last week that they believe the overall rate of decline is around 30%, but say they don’t have good data.
Speaking to reporters in Los Angeles, Austin also acknowledged the black community’s reluctance to the vaccine. As the first black person to serve as chief of defense, Austin said he believes the vaccine is safe and that with enough information people will make the right decision.