Combating COVID-19 is "Job 1" for the entire government, President Joe Biden said when he took office; DOD is doing its part.
"I think the military is doing a phenomenal job," said Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen H. Hicks. She believes this is working in both the mission to protect Defense Department people and readiness and in the larger mission to support federal, state and local officials.
COVID-19 colors every decision the DOD officials make, she said.
The department has to cover readiness and the precautions needed to safeguard the force. "With regard to our own workforce, starting to really make sure we're getting shots in arms out into even austere environments: Folks who are deployed in … the [Central Command] theater, [Africa Command] theater, etc.," she said.
It is in the country's interest that service members and their DOD civilian compadres are protected, she said. "We need our own workforce to be protected in order for it to be ready," she said. "[The workforce] needs to get vaccinated, and it needs to have testing protocols."
"We've seen a tremendous drop just here in the Pentagon in the rate of COVID-19 cases from January to February, so we know these efforts are paying off," Hicks said. "We know we're protecting our long-term readiness in our workforce."
It is a whole-of-government approach, and DOD does play its role. From the beginning of the pandemic, National Guardsmen have been crucial in aiding their fellow citizens. In addition, active duty medics deployed to New York and Los Angeles and El Paso, Texas, and Chicago and many other areas to help overwhelmed medics. Now, active-duty vaccination teams have deployed around the country in support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's efforts to get shots in arms. DOD medics provided 50,000 shots in one day and also vaccinated 500,000 Americans in under a month.
Hicks also praised the department’s efforts in support of Health and Human Services in regard to vaccine distribution. "It is such a tremendous, phenomenal effort," she said. "Now, it's about making sure that we help stand up civilian capacity that can endure over the long term. We're here for the surge, if you will. We know we have to build out that civilian capacity, and we want to make sure we help do that."
Hicks urged service members and their families to consider being vaccinated. "We took a photo of me being vaccinated [with] my second shot so that we could demonstrate that people shouldn't be afraid of the vaccination," she said. "Really, to the extent that they're in an eligible group, we hope that they're going out there and getting vaccinated. And I'll just also say [that] we're trying to make sure, as we move now into a period of greater supply, that we have approaches to bring vaccines to make it easier for people to get vaccinated and bring vaccines closer to the workforce."
Vaccine numbers are moving in the right direction within DOD and in America as a whole. "We're very worried, of course, about the variants, the UK variant, for instance, and the speed of spread that we'll see from that," Hicks said. "I think, as Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and others have said, it's a race between vaccination and variants; and that's why masking, social distancing, et cetera, those are all so important even as we're getting vaccines out there."
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