The road toward getting a COVID-19 vaccine for veterans has been a long one. At press time new legislation has expanded vaccine access for veterans and family members (see below), but current production levels of the vaccine may not be sufficient to provide comprehensive vaccinations for the entire veteran population that needs them.
In 2021, much of the federal government’s COVID-19 efforts have been in “catch-up” mode due to multiple failures of the Trump administration including turning down offers of more vaccine doses from Pfizer in late 2020.
But in 2021, the Defense Production Act has been used to increase vaccine production and the government’s approach since Inauguration Day has been far more proactive in addressing the needs of Americans–including the veteran population–related to coronavirus issues.
COVID-19 Vaccinations For Veterans
The most recent developments in the push to get veterans vaccinated include legislation finalized by Congress and sent to the President’s desk that would authorize all veterans, spouses, and caregivers to receive COVID-19 vaccinations via the Department of Veterans Affairs. The earlier rules for such vaccinations required the VA only to give vaccinations to veterans eligible for VA healthcare and for “certain caregivers” registered to work in VA programs.
The elephant in the room, so to speak, with this new legislation is vaccine availability. There simply isn’t a large enough supply of vaccines that can be made available to the Department of Veterans Affairs to handle the entire need.
The VA official site page on this issue states unequivocally, “At this time, we still have a limited amount of vaccines” adding, “Your employer, pharmacy, or local public health officials may offer you a COVID-19 vaccine. We encourage you to take the first opportunity you have to get a vaccine at the most convenient location for you.”
At the time of this writing, the VA is administering some 250 thousand vaccines per week. Published reports include VA vaccinations totalling some 1.4 million people since December 2020 including more than one million veterans. Other VA efforts in this area include providing grants totalling $1 billion intended for state veteran homes nationwide, “…to ensure residents continue to receive high quality care, live in modern, safe facilities and are protected from the COVID-19 pandemic” according to a VA press release.
When the year 2020 began, there were no vaccines for COVID-19. Most in America were unaware of the virus until sometime near the middle or end of the first quarter of 2020 but by the time the second quarter of the year rolled around, coronavirus had dominated world attention.
So too, did talk of a vaccine. Coronavirus vaccine development went into overdrive as part of global efforts to speed up research, testing, and potential distribution of an approved medication for COVID-19 and/or its symptoms. This push for a vaccine involved researchers and pharmaceutical companies in China, Russia, America, and many other countries and governments elsewhere.
In the United States, the effort was dubbed Operation Warp Speed, and more than 170 countries have participated in some way toward efforts to find a vaccine, plan its distribution and implementation, etc.
As research entered Stage Three trials for several possible vaccines, hopes began rising that the end to an unchecked global pandemic might be in sight. In the last quarter of 2020 news headlines were dominated by not one, but THREE possible vaccines entering the end of third-stage clinical trials with high effectiveness rates.
The three major players were developed by:
Pfizer reached the finish line first; that company’s vaccine began distribution in America on December 15, 2020. The first recipient of the American “vaccine wave” was New York nurse Sandra Lindsay, who went on record to encourage others not to fear the vaccine, reporting that she was “feeling great” according to multiple sources following her vaccination.
COVID-19 Vaccinations For Veterans
Earlier: COVID-19 Vaccinations For Troops & Vets
As 2020 wore on, the promise of a single vaccine gave many hope; as the research continued and multiple versions started looking equally viable, it became clear that an answer could be in sight. As the world got closer to the first doses becoming available, officials involved in the planning, research, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations all said the same thing; the vaccine will be rolled out in stages allowing first responders and the most vulnerable to receive their coronavirus vaccinations first.
The United States Military and the Department of Defense issued statements announcing plans to inoculate troops as soon as a vaccine was provided, anticipating some 44,000 initial doses of the vaccine, intended for some 13 U.S.-based DoD sites, and three overseas according to a DoD press release.
The Department of Veterans Affairs announced a limited supply of the COVID-19 vaccine to begin with but is working with the Centers for Disease Control and “other federal partners” to offer the COVID-19 vaccine in phases which would begin with frontline VA workers and the most vulnerable vets in long-term healthcare facilities. The VA said of its policy, “Vaccinating our health care workers first helps us continue providing care for Veterans.”
It established the phased vaccination policy based on CDC guidelines which prioritize who should get their “jabs” first based on a variety of considerations:
- Risk of becoming infected with the virus
- Risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19
- Risk of spreading the virus to others
- Risk of harm to society if essential workers, including health care personnel, are unable to work
Once those two groups have been vaccinated, the phased plan adopted by the VA will allow vaccinations for more vets–those who are, “at high risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19. Your VA health care team will contact you if you’re eligible to get a vaccine during this time.
How does the VA determine who is in this high-risk category? It uses the same guidelines followed by the CDC which include:
- Age: fatalities from COVID-19 are more likely the older the patient
- Existing health problems
- “Complicating factors” such as living in a nursing home or group care home
Where The VA Intended The First Vaccines To Go
There were 37 original VA sites where the first COVID-19 vaccinations were intended to take place within the Department of Veterans Affairs:
- Bedford (MA) VA Health Care System
- Ann Arbor (MI) VA Health Care System
- Minneapolis (MN) VA Health Care System
- Harry S Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital (Columbia MO)
- Louis (MO) VA Health Care System
- Omaha (NE) VA Health Care System
- Southern Nevada (North Las Vegas) VA Health Care System
- Raymond G. Murphy (NM) VA Health Care System
- New York Harbor (Brooklyn) VA Health Care System
- Western New York (Buffalo) VA Health Care System
- Durham (NC) VA Health Care System
- Cleveland (OH) VA Health Care System
- Oklahoma City (OK) VA Health Care System
- Portland (OR) VA Health Care System
- Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center (Philadelphia PA)
- Pittsburgh (PA) VA Health Care System
- Caribbean (Puerto Rico) VA Health Care System
- Memphis (TN) VA Health Care System
- Dallas (TX) VA Medical Center
- Michael E. DeBakey VA Health Care System (Houston TX)
- Audie L. Murphy VA Hospital (San Antonio TX)
- Richmond (VA) VA Health Care System
- Puget Sound (WA) VA Health Care System
- Milwaukee (WI) VA Health Care System
The DoD Role In The Vaccine Effort
In all of this, the Department of Defense has played a major role in American work on the virus, vaccines and related research, and potential distribution. It is anticipated that the earliest doses of any approved COVID-19 vaccine will be distributed on a priority basis for first responders, and other extremely vulnerable populations. But what about vaccination options for veterans?
The Department of Veterans Affairs has created contingency plans for the time when a COVID-19 vaccine is available for veterans. It’s not doing this alone; the agency has partnered with the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention to create a plan that would make the vaccinations available in a phased plan.
What does the plan entail? It addresses risk factors including whether a veteran, caregiver, or essential worker is high-risk or not and also assesses vulnerability in terms of who is likely to develop severe illness or die as a result of a coronavirus infection.
VA literature on this plan includes anticipating a shortage of the vaccine at first. The VA official site states, “VA will offer the vaccine first to high-risk health care personnel (HCP), as they are essential in continuing to care for patients throughout the pandemic.”
It is expected that, as vaccine scarcity becomes less of an issue that high-risk veterans are next in line, and following them, “VA’s ultimate goal is to offer it to all Veterans and employees who want to be vaccinated.”
That plan addressed risk factors including whether a veteran, caregiver, or essential worker is high-risk or not and also assesses vulnerability in terms of who is likely to develop severe illness or die as a result of a coronavirus infection.
How The VA Prepared For A COVID-19 Vaccine
Getting ready for its phased COVID-19 vaccination rollout was not an easy feat for the Department of Veterans Affairs; in an era where no effort like this had ever taken place in recent memory, the entire program had to be created from the ground up.
To prepare, the VA held its own version of military readiness exercises. The Department of Veterans Affairs put its staffers through training to get ready for the first receipt and rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine.
The exercises were designed to help individual sites prepare for distribution, prioritize who gets the vaccine first and how. These preparations also included procedures to store, administer, and reorder the vaccine when it becomes available.
But it wasn’t all just rehearsing the procedures. The Department of VA also conducted seminars, listening sessions, and interviews with veterans all over the USA “…to gauge their interest and determine the best methods for reaching out” to the veteran population who will need these medications.
Vaccine Side Effects?
All vaccines, no matter what the need or the source, can result in adverse reactions in a certain percentage of the population. Adverse effects can be mild such as prolonged expected symptoms from the inoculation (sore arms, fever, chills, nausea) but can range to the more extreme. That’s especially true for those who may have an allergic reaction to the vaccination and any vaccination could cause allergic reactions in a certain percentage of patients.
For the COVID-19 vaccination specifically, side effects may vary depending on a variety of factors including the overall health of the individual, medical sensitivities, or other issues but in general it is safe to anticipate side effects similar to the common flu vaccine including:
- Muscle aches
- Soreness at the injection site
- “Other flu-like symptoms”
Those who receive the earliest versions of the vaccine may anticipate the potential to miss work or school due to the side effects, and veterans are reminded that no vaccine has a 100% efficacy rate; some patients may still contract COVID-19 due to this variable even if they get their shots.
With that in mind, it’s important to heed the advice of the Centers For Disease Control, which reminds patients that even those who have contracted COVID-19 may benefit from a vaccination. The CDC’s current guidance also advises you should not worry about contracting the disease via the inoculation. The CDC adds that getting the vaccine will not make you test “false positive” for coronavirus.
Contact your nearest Department of Veterans Affairs location to learn more about the current availability or future availability of a COVID vaccine for those in the VA healthcare system.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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