Leaders Urge Vigilance, Vaccines During COVID Outbreak

Leaders Urge Vigilance, Vaccines During COVID Outbreak

soldier giving vaccine
Photo by: William Beach

As the omicron variant drives up COVID-19 cases across the U.S., military and veteran families must remain vigilant, senior leaders said during a recent virtual town hall. 

“This is a … pivotal moment for our country, and certainly for our military families and our veteran families,” said Koby Langley, senior vice president at the American Red Cross overseeing its Service to the Armed Forces program. 

Hosted by the Blue Star Families nonprofit group, the town hall on Jan. 19 also featured Lt. Gen. Ronald Place, director of the Defense Health Agency; Air Force Maj. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon; and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the president.

There have been more than 67 million COVID cases in the U.S. since the pandemic began in 2020 and more than 850,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

After a decline last year, cases began to rise again after the emergence of the highly contagious omicron variant.  

Place stressed that everyone should get vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19. “The bottom line [is], not only for yourself, but for your families and your communities, I strongly urge everyone to get vaccinated and get a booster when appropriate,” he said. 

Service members and their families can easily access COVID-19 vaccines at military medical facilities, Place said. “We have plenty of vaccines. Primary doses, second doses, boosters, it's not a supply problem,” he said.

From DoD’s perspective, the pandemic is a threat to national security, Place said. 

“One of the first things that Secretary of Defense [Lloyd] Austin communicated on his first day in the Pentagon … is that the pandemic was a national security threat, and that the Department of Defense would be part of the whole-of-government response,” he said. 

Military medical teams are key to the government’s response as they continue to fight the pandemic across the country, Place said. 

“Our military medical personnel have answered and continue to answer that call,” he said. “We've helped staff overwhelmed civilian hospitals [and] continue to do that. … We've shared masks and other personal protective equipment with our civilian colleagues. …The list goes on.” 

The same situational awareness that service members are taught to have could serve them well if they must travel or move to a new duty station during the omicron outbreak, Place said. 

“With [the omicron] variant, transmissibility … is much, much, much higher,” he said. “Situational awareness is an important part of who we are. But if you're vaccinated and boosted, where appropriate and not immune-compromised, your risk or the risk to your family … of a severe case of COVID is extraordinarily low.” 

Friedrichs urged military families to continue holding off on gatherings so that service members are “able to do the things that our nation depends on them to do.” 

“The most important thing that we ask you all to continue to do is keep faith with your service members,” Friedrichs said. “In the very best of times, we ask a lot of our military families. We’re asking even more now.”