One active-duty member stationed at the Pentagon was so determined to get his COVID-19 vaccination that he took leave and drove hundreds of miles to his home state in the south, spending about $800 on two trips to get both shots.
“My experience at the Pentagon has been awful….. the only people who received vaccines in my office were the leadership, because they’re the oldest,” the service member, who is in his late 20s, wrote in an email to Military Times.
Just as access to the COVID-19 vaccination varies from one civilian community to another, it also varies among military communities. And while there has been a lot of discussion about service members and families being reluctant to get the vaccination, there are also people who are anxiously awaiting their turn. When they’re eligible, they’re scrambling to find an appointment wherever they can, whether it’s at a military treatment facility or a location in the civilian community.
The non-profit Blue Star Families support organization is currently fielding another online poll, asking military families about their access to the vaccine, in order to help decision makers “remove barriers” to getting the vaccine.
President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that as of April 19, all Americans will be eligible to sign up to be vaccinated. Some states have already begun to open up eligibility for the entire population, so it remains to be seen how long the waiting lists will be in civilian communities and military treatment facilities.
Defense officials predict that by around the middle of July, military beneficiaries who want to be vaccinated, will be able to, said Army Lt. Gen. Ronald J. Place, director of the Defense Health Agency, during a press conference March 26. DoD has administered more than 1.8 million doses of vaccine to over 1.1 million eligible DOD beneficiaries, he said.
Military installations have different sizes of populations, with different missions, but almost all are currently vaccinating those deployed or preparing to deploy, strategic defense forces, beneficiaries over the age of 75 and front-line essential workers, Place said. Many have been vaccinating those 65 and older, and those ages 17 to 64 with an underlying health condition that puts them at higher risk for COVID-19.
About 60 percent of military personnel are in the last priority group — generally young without underlying health conditions and not currently required in an operational mission. So more than half the force hasn’t yet been offered a vaccine, Place said, which is similar to the eligibility phases of most U.S. jurisdictions.
The majority of military spouses are also likely in that lowest tier of eligibility.
In an effort to find out whether readers have been able to get the vaccine, and where they’re getting the shots, Military Times put out a call for input.
The responses show a wide variety of experiences, and they might provide some insight to those who want to get the shots when eligibility opens up, and more vaccine becomes available. At some locations, the military treatment facility, or MTF, is making it easy to get the shots. A number of spouses at different installations said they received phone calls from their MTF when they were eligible to receive the vaccination because of underlying medical conditions.
A Navy dependent in her 50s with an underlying medical condition was able to get the Pfizer vaccine at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii. She received an automated call offering her the vaccine, even though she uses Tricare Select and doesn’t normally get her health care at that facility.
Defense officials announced early on that any eligible beneficiaries could get vaccinated at military treatment facilities, regardless of whether they normally get their health care at that facility. That depends on the supply of vaccine, and they’ve also made it clear that MTFs are moving through the phases of eligibility at various times.
A 40-year-old wife of a soldier stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., said she was contacted by Martin Army Community Hospital about her eligibility and her daughter’s, “due to being high risk.” They got appointments within 48 hours. The hospital “has been amazing sending updates through the secure patient portal concerning who is eligible and how to schedule. Vaccination site ran very smoothly and quickly,” she wrote. The hospital’s Facebook page says they are now vaccinating all beneficiaries 50 years and older, and active duty members not in training status, in addition to high-risk beneficiaries ages 16 and up.
Some spouses reported concerns about the lack of available vaccine in some overseas areas. For example, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, there’s no access to the vaccine on base or off base, one spouse said. “The situation here is disappointing, to say the least,” she wrote, in late March.
Another spouse was concerned that her sailor wasn’t able to get vaccinated until just recently where he is stationed in Yokosuka, Japan.
Responses were varied, even among those at the same base. At Fort Polk, La., one 27-year-old soldier said he received the second dose of Moderna vaccine on base in February, after his battalion asked for volunteers. “Once I volunteered, a technician from the hospital called me and set up my first appointment. ….. For me, it was a very simple experience.”
Others are waiting at that post. “Widespread vaccines have not been readily available in our location. I know many people — soldiers and family members — who are still waiting to be put on a wait list,” wrote one soldier at Fort Polk.
On March 31, Fort Polk’s Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital Facebook page posted: “We understand your frustration with longer than expected wait times for vaccination of our most at risk population and our ability to move into the next phase of the federal response schema. Rest assured we are doing everything in our power to spread the word, prioritize volunteers, and vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as we can.”
A 76-year-old Army retiree in Texas had nothing but praise for the medical personnel who were running a vaccination program in a theatre building at Fort Bliss, where he got his shots. “The entire program was excellent from start to finish.....
“I received my second shot on Feb. 20, and feel like I’ve been given my life back.”
Turning to the civilian community
Many people have signed up on their local community’s vaccination wait list, but have also been scouring websites of local pharmacies for possible appointments in the meantime.
A 66-year-old whose wife is active duty Air Force stationed in the Washington, D.C., area tried for an appointment at a military treatment facility, but his age group was not yet eligible. He found scheduling an appointment difficult. “I was checking the websites of various civilian pharmacy chains daily, but always without being able to schedule one. In the end what finally worked was the one-time sign-up on Delaware state’s online waiting list.” He received his first Pfizer dose on March 18 at a gym at the Delaware Technical College in Georgetown.
A sailor in Washington state with an underlying condition got a call from the Fairchild Air Force Base clinic that he was eligible for the shot, but his wife drove the 20 minutes to Idaho to get her shot, after a neighbor posted on social media that a vaccine clinic there had extra doses.
A 35-year-old Army staff sergeant on recruiting detail in Massachusetts said he and some of his coworkers volunteered for the shots months ago when their battalion asked who wanted it. A vaccination clinic was set up “all the way up in New Hampshire,” the week of March 29, but he and a coworker were able to get their first shots the week before at a local clinic. “We went at 4:30 p.m. hoping for a couple no-shows/extra doses,” he wrote, which is where he got his “Fauci Ouchie,” as he calls it.
A 38-year-old Air Force spouse with underlying health conditions, whose husband is stationed at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, said she received an email from Tricare advising her to turn to their local pharmacies or health department. “It was clear the base wasn’t going to be handling any of it.” She and her husband both looked to their local health department. “It was a seamless, super easy website we used,” she said, adding that there are different sites set up for vaccinations, open six days a week. “Nevada has been amazing with getting the ball rolling.”
Alaska has been good about getting shots into arms, too. A 35-year-old active duty member got his COVID vaccination in the civilian community, and made the appointment online. “Super easy and next day appointments,” he wrote. He said U.S. Army Alaska pushes out COVID information and vaccination information weekly to the community.
A Navy Reserve spouse in Minneapolis who is a mental health counselor got her shots through her employer in January. Her husband has resumed in-person drilling, but he “has not heard from either the VA or his command about the availability of the vaccine.”
A 30-year-old Navy reservist in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area said he was able to get his vaccination through his wife’s employer in mid-March. She’s a manager at a grocery store, and after vaccinating their employees, the company had enough left over to vaccinate family members.
Some have turned to the VA for shots, including a retired Air Force master sergeant who is no longer eligible to get treatment at the Hill Air Force Base, Utah, military treatment facility. He was able to get his shots at the VA hospital in Salt Lake City.
Have shots and have nots
The shots — or lack of— has been an issue for some in the National Guard community. Earlier in March, spouses of National Guard members in New Hampshire were able to get shots through the Guard—except for spouses of dual status members. So those working at these vaccination sites had to turn away dependents of these service members, even though they had extra vaccine.
This is one example of the effects of a federal law that doesn’t allow National Guard dual-status technicians to enroll in Tricare. These dual-status technicians are federal civilian employees who get paid on the GS scale. They are required to maintain a military membership with a Guard unit as part of their employment; and they’re required to wear a military uniform and “recognize all military customs and courtesies,” according to a DoD handbook.
Starting in 2030, these dual-status technicians will be eligible for Tricare. But for now, they must use the federal employee health benefit. The National Guard Bureau put out instructions in February on procedures for the administration and logistics of providing the vaccine, and specifically stated only those DoD dependents who are enrolled in Tricare can receive the vaccine as part of the DoD vaccination program.
One New Hampshire National Guard full time employee said the policy is unfair to dependents of the dual-status technician employees. “Picture this: We have two soldiers or airmen working side by side at a vaccination site: same rank, same uniform, same job….. one can get their dependents vaccinated and the other can’t,” said the employee, who asked to remain anonymous.
Over two weekends in mid-March, the New Hampshire National Guard held vaccination events for dependents, with about 130 Army Guard dependents one weekend and 120 Air Guard dependents the next weekend. “It is sad,” the Guard member said, noting that a friend working in the Guard vaccination program “was depressed” about turning away so many Guard dependents. At that time, most of those dependents were not eligible for shots through civilian sources. As of April 2, New Hampshire has opened up eligibility to everyone ages 16 and up in the state.
A Guard member working in a vaccination clinic at an armory in a different state said he has also turned people away because of this rule, yet he’s resorted to calling other reserve component units nearby to offer extra available doses.
National Guard Bureau referred questions about the differences to DoD, where the policy originates. “Family members who are not Tricare eligible are not part of the eligible population,” said Peter Graves, spokesman for the Defense Health Agency.
“For the DoD vaccination effort alone, the key is to ensure all DoD eligible beneficiaries receive the vaccine from the limited national supply DoD receives.”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.