As he rolled up his sleeve to receive his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, Department of Veterans Affairs Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said he was excited to get a shot that will decrease the likelihood he’ll bring the coronavirus home to his family.
“My wife is a very asthmatic person, so I definitely need to take all the precautions to ensure that she is staying healthy,” Hayes said shortly after receiving the vaccine at the VA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Hayes, a retired Army master sergeant, received one of a million doses the VA had distributed as of Tuesday. According to the department, 582,000 first doses and 44,000 second doses of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine have been delivered to veterans, while more than 401,000 doses have been given to VA employees.
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An additional 1,200 have been administered to personnel from other federal agencies that work with the VA, according to officials.
Across the entire U.S., roughly 32 million vaccine shots had been administered as of Feb. 1, according to New York Times compilations. The VA’s million-shot milestone puts it ahead of states including North Carolina, New Jersey and Washington; it has administered more vaccine doses than the states of Oregon and Louisiana combined. Only eight U.S. states have administered more vaccine doses to date. On Tuesday, the state of Illinois, which has a population of 12.67 million according to the last census, also administered its millionth vaccine dose.
The Department of Defense has administered about 500,000 vaccine shots to date, according to the Times.
Dr. Richard Stone, acting under secretary for health for the Veterans Health Administration, was among a dozen clinicians at the VA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., administering the vaccine to essential workers in the building this week.
Stone, a retired Army physician, said he is pleased with the progress of delivery across the system nationwide, adding that the department administers its weekly allotment of more than 108,000 doses “in three to four days.”
The VA has the capacity, he added, to administer 600,000 doses a week.
“We built a system ready to accommodate much larger quantities as the manufacturers ramp up,” he said.
According to Stone, the rate of vaccine acceptance among VA employees is between 80% and 83% — far higher than the rate of 60% reported in December among the general U.S. population, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.
One of the reasons VA employees are eager to get the vaccine, he said, is that the department has been “hit really hard.”
“We’re doing health care and taking care of some pretty sick patients. The willingness to take the vaccine has been overwhelming,” Stone said.
Since the beginning of the outbreak, more than 209,000 VA patients have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Roughly 9,200 have died, including 1,800 in January alone — the deadliest month to date for VA patients, surpassing the record in December of roughly 1,700 people.
VA employees also have succumbed to the virus: As of Tuesday, 121 had died.
The VA began delivering vaccines late last year, starting Dec. 14 with Margaret Klessens, 96, a World War II veteran who lives in a VA community living center at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts.
The VA is delivering vaccines at more than 215 sites across the country, with plans to expand to additional sites as vaccine supplies increase.
But officials said that until manufacturers increase delivery — and new vaccines become available, likely in March — “many facilities may temporarily run out of vaccines for short periods of time.”
In addition to announcing the millionth vaccine milestone, VA officials have started posting data on the number of veterans who have received a COVID-19 vaccine by facility — data that will be updated daily, according to acting VA Secretary Dat Tran.
As of late January, the VA was in “Phase 1B” for administering COVID-19 vaccinations to veterans, including those who are 75 years of age or older, serve as essential workers, have an underlying health condition requiring chemotherapy or dialysis, or are organ transplant recipients.
Stone said the vaccine has proven to be safe for the VA’s vulnerable patient population: The department has recorded adverse reactions in fewer than 30 patients who received the vaccine — mainly fainting or a rapid heart rate, and zero hospitalizations.
The VA has been contacting veterans who are eligible for vaccination to schedule appointments; those who would like additional information can go to the VA COVID-19 vaccines webpage, visit their local facility’s website or contact their doctor.
Hayes received the vaccine because he is considered an essential worker who interacts with the public frequently. He said he hopes that his decision to get the vaccine will influence others — including members of his own family — to get it.
“My family down South is very hesitant to take the vaccine for various different reasons that are legitimate so I wanted to … help them understand that it’s best to get the vaccine — not just to protect themselves but to protect their family and anyone they come in contact with,” he said.
— Patricia Kime can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.
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Originally published February 2, 2021, 4:37 PM