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U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Ashton Gilbert, a 673d Healthcare Operations Squadron medical technician, administers the first of a two-dose series of a COVID-19 vaccine to U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. David Krumm, the Alaskan North American Aerospace Defense Command Region, Alaskan Command and Eleventh Air Force commander, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Jan. 4, 2021. 

WASHINGTON -- Nearly 68% of active duty personnel have been vaccinated against COVID-19 with at least one dose. But that still leaves many service members vulnerable to the delta variant of the virus, health officials at the Pentagon said.

Due to the effectiveness of the Defense Department's ongoing vaccination program, COVID-19 case counts across the department are dropping and installation commanders have been reducing local health protection conditions, or HPCON levels, Dr. Terry Adirim, the acting assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said during a press briefing at the Pentagon.

“However, the delta variant poses a threat to that return to normal,” Adirim said. “We are particularly concerned with the impact of the delta variant on our unvaccinated or partially-vaccinated population, and its potential spread at installations that are located in parts of the country with low vaccination rates.”

According to the military health system, the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus is more transmittable, causes more severe disease, and results in higher cases of hospitalization and death than any other strain of the virus.

“The pandemic is not over, and we are not done with our all-out efforts to encourage vaccination,” Adirim said.

The DOD has an active whole genome sequencing program in place to identify what strain of the virus is present in those who test positive for COVID-19, Adirim said.

“We're closely watching our DOD case counts, positivity rates and the prevalence of the delta variant among all the other variants of concern,” she said. “We anticipate that health protection conditions could change at some of our installations in the future based on outbreaks that result from the high transmutability of the delta variant.

“The more virulent delta variant is spreading quickly through communities with lower vaccination rates,” she said. “... and it is likely to become the predominant variant in the United States. The delta variant poses a threat to our service members who are not fully vaccinated. The best way to beat the delta variant is to be fully vaccinated.”

Studies have shown that one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine is only about 33% effective against the delta variant, while two doses are at least 88% effective, Adirim said.

“We are investing great effort into ensuring our service members and other beneficiaries get both doses,” she said. “So the bottom line is get vaccinated, they are safe and effective.”

Across the entire DOD, including military personnel, family members, civilians and contractors, there have been 303,000 cases of COVID-19 and 355 deaths related to the disease.

“Right now, there are about 21 individuals hospitalized for COVID-19 in DOD facilities,” said Army Lt. Gen. Ronald J. Place, Defense Health Agency director.

“This is a decline from a peak of 240 inpatients on January 8 of this year, essentially the lowest point we've had since the earliest days of the pandemic,” Place said.

“If those who have not yet been vaccinated need further proof of the vaccine's effectiveness,” Place said, “it's the status of those currently hospitalized within the military's health system. Of the 21 COVID-positive individuals in DOD hospitals, none of them are vaccinated.

We thank our service members and DOD personnel who have been vaccinated and continue to strongly encourage our remaining service members, DOD retirees, all of their families, and DOD staff to get vaccinated — for themselves, for their families and for the community.”

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