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Americans at military bases overseas struggle to get COVID-19 vaccine

Frustrated with Defense Department distribution, some say they feel abandoned

Colored tape on the floor guides COVID-19 vaccine recipients at a neighborhood vaccination center in Washington on March 19.
Colored tape on the floor guides COVID-19 vaccine recipients at a neighborhood vaccination center in Washington on March 19. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Emilee Seger watched as her home state of Ohio announced that it would open COVID-19 vaccinations to all adults by the end of the month. If she were home, it would have been cause for celebration.

But Seger, who lives more than 4,000 miles away at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, felt abandoned. On base, vaccinations are only available to the highest-priority groups, and the supply is so limited that some second doses have been canceled.

In fact, the situation facing many Americans on overseas military bases has become frustrating enough to prompt troops and their families to reach out to Congress for help.

“Many of our military personnel abroad are geographically isolated and face significant logistical hurdles in accessing the coronavirus vaccine,” Ohio Republican Michael R. Turner, a senior House Armed Services Committee member, said in an email. Turner, one of several lawmakers whom Seger contacted recently, previously raised the issue with Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and other military officials.

But the problem, it appears, is far from solved at U.S. bases in Europe even as the speed of vaccine distribution surpasses early expectations within the United States.

At Ramstein, where there are nearly 60,000 U.S. troops, civilians and their families, only key personnel like food service workers and those over the age of 75 have been vaccinated.

“They haven’t told us anything about why the vaccine supply is so limited — and there are plenty of people here who are ready to take the vaccine,” said Seger, whose husband works at Ramstein. She is awaiting vaccine instructions from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, which serves the base and is the largest U.S. hospital overseas.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, an Armed Services Committee member, is one of the lawmakers investigating the issue at Landstuhl. His staff “was told that certain vaccines, which were needed as second doses, may have been given to patients as first doses, but apparently the Army resolved the issue by reallocating vaccines from another location,” Nate Adams, a Sullivan spokesman, said in an email.

“Finally, while the Department of Defense claims that there are currently no delays in getting vaccines to Landstuhl, Senator Sullivan’s office will continue to monitor the situation,” Adams said.

Landstuhl officials acknowledge on the hospital’s own Facebook page that they are still struggling to furnish second doses for those who have been vaccinated with a first.

“For those of you waiting on your second dose of the vaccine, we are doing everything in our power to get you those vaccines within the 42-day window the manufacturer recommends. If, however, there is a delay, we will ensure you are prioritized to receive your second dose as soon as possible and you will not have to start your vaccine series over again,” read the latest Facebook update, dated March 15, from the medical center.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only “limited data are available on the efficacy of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines administered” outside of the 42-day window.

Out of options

For servicemembers and their families, there aren’t really any options other than to be vaccinated on base. Germany is struggling to vaccinate its own citizens as the country braces for a third wave of the pandemic.

As of Tuesday, new COVID-19 cases in Germany, tracked by the country’s Robert Koch Insitute, a public health institute, are at their highest levels since late January, with a seven-day average of more than 13,000 cases per day.

Eileen Huck, deputy director for government relations at the National Military Family Association, said the organization is concerned about the slow vaccine rollout in some overseas locations.

“The worst thing is uncertainty,” Huck said. “We want families to get clear instructions and guidance.”

During a Facebook town hall last week, Col. E. Lee Bryan, commander of MEDDAC Bavaria, the Army’s regional health command that serves more than 45,000 people in the area, said they had not received any vaccine doses in the past month. Despite weekly updates from the Defense Logistics Agency, he said he does not know when they will receive the next batch.

The wife of an active-duty Army officer at Ramstein who asked to be identified only by her first name, Megan, said that statement worried her.

“They haven’t even gotten through the essential workers and we, the general population, don’t know why. It doesn’t give us confidence,” Megan said.

The situation is similar at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, the Army’s only overseas combat training center.

“Based on what they’re telling us, they’ve only just finished vaccinating the medical providers who work on base — those who treat COVID patients,” said the spouse of an active-duty Army soldier stationed at the base, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“And we know that members of the foreign units that come here have tested positive for the virus and they’re not announcing those cases,” she said. “But word gets around.”

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Hot potato

When asked about the situation on U.S. bases in Germany, a Defense Logistics Agency spokesman directed questions to the Pentagon’s public affairs office. A Pentagon public affairs officer then directed questions about vaccine allotments to the military services.

An Air Force spokesman said vaccine allotments are based on population and that eligible individuals are contacted as vaccines become available. The proportion of vaccines allocated to bases within Europe is “commensurate with the U.S. Air Force vaccine distribution in stateside locations,” the spokesman added.

When asked why some military families feel there has been inadequate communication from the Air Force, the spokesman directed those people to a website, or to their commanders.

An Army spokesman said officials are distributing vaccines on a tiered, “shoulder to shoulder” system. That means as some bases finish vaccinating a specific tier group, they may have to wait for the rest of the Army to catch up before receiving additional vaccines.

Furthermore, Army bases in Europe can only receive the Moderna vaccine because they cannot accommodate the ultracold storage requirements of Pfizer’s vaccine. The Army, the spokesman said, has allocated more Moderna vaccines to European bases.

In the coming weeks, the Army will distribute initial doses of the single-shot vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson.

“Army headquarters and installations are sharing updates via town halls, social and digital media, and providing units and leaders at all levels with resources and guidance to communicate directly with their soldiers, civilian employees, family members and retirees,” the spokesman added.

Congressional attention

Increasingly, lawmakers are turning their attention to the issue of vaccinating deployed troops. Turner, for one, has tied an efficient vaccine rollout to military readiness.

“I am aware of vaccine shipment delays for military members and their dependents at Ramstein Air Force Base, who are reliant upon the DoD health system for inoculation,” Turner said in a March 17 letter to Austin.

Another Ohio Republican, Rep. Warren Davidson, said he has flagged the issue for the Biden administration and has been told they’re looking into it.

“But speaking as a former Army Ranger, I don’t understand why we haven’t been able to prioritize access to vaccines for the men and women who’ve volunteered to defend America,” Davidson said.

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