Defense Department officials warn COVID-19 pandemic isn't over

Spc. Elizabeth Porter, a field medic with the 1-131st Aviation Regiment, swabs a soldier’s nose for a COVID-19 test. Photo credit Sgt. Jacob Hearn

By C. Todd Lopez, DoD News

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, Dr. Terry Adirim, the acting assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said during a recent 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 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,” said Adirim.

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," Adirim said. "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.