Veterans Affairs officials still have millions of coronavirus vaccine doses they hope to deliver in coming months, but they’re already looking ahead to the possibility of booster shots for vaccinated veterans this fall.
That’s because VA medical experts — along with other health professionals worldwide — are planning for the next potential wave of pandemic problems, as COVID-19 variants emerge and researchers develop a better understanding of how effective current vaccines can be against them.
“Right now, it appears that we’ll be able to publish in the next few weeks the evidence that between seven and nine months we can feel comfortable that [vaccinated] individuals are still protected,” acting VA Under Secretary for Health Richard Stone told reporters at a department press conference Friday.
“The next question you ask is if this is an endemic disease — which hundreds of researchers and public health leaders believe, and I am one of those — how do we reduce mortality and hospitalization because of it? Clearly, it’s going to be the ability to deliver more immunizations.”
Department medical staff have been working alongside officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in recent months on coronavirus antibody research.
Based on those findings so far, Stone said, VA officials have begun taking steps to treat the current pandemic as an annual problem, similar to influenza, with “recurrent immunizations” for veterans and their families.
That work is taking place as VA officials are working to rapidly increase the pace of vaccinations in their existing medical system, in response to new legislation from Congress dramatically expanding the population eligible to receive shots at VA medical centers.
Until earlier this week, only veterans who qualified for VA health care — less than half of the estimated 19 million veterans in America today — were eligible to receive vaccine doses through VA, along with a small number of caregivers.
Now, under the new rules, all veterans, their spouses and caregivers are eligible. VA’s potential pool of individuals to vaccinate jumped from about 7 million to more than 30 million with the change.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the department has set a goal of May 1 for all of those individuals to be able to sign up for vaccine waiting lists.
“I take great pride in the fact that Congress and the President voted their confidence in VA’s capacity here,” he told reporters. “And that’s by virtue of how the team has run the vaccination program to date.”
Department officials have administered more than 3.3 million vaccine doses since mid-December, and fully vaccinated more than 1.6 million veterans and about 33,000 non-VA federal employees through arrangements with other agencies.
Stone said he expects the department’s weekly allotment of vaccines to rise from about 200,000 to 250,000 over the next month, and believes VA staff could deliver as much at 300,000 each week if supplies allow.
Those supplies will be the determining factor on when most veterans can actually visit VA to receive vaccinations. Stone said that department leaders have approved pilot programs in areas where local authorities believe they have vaccinated most of the previously eligible population, to start widening the number of veterans helped.
“So areas up in the northeast and down in the mid- and southwest have volunteered to be pilots,” he said. “We also began working yesterday with officials down in Florida on expansion.”
McDonough said part of the challenge is finding ways to quickly enter potentially millions more individuals into VA’s medical records system, to ensure vaccines and medical issues are being tracked.
For federal partners receiving doses, the process has taken up to 15 minutes of paperwork and data entry per individual. McDonough said he hopes to streamline that in coming weeks.
VA officials are encouraging veterans interested in the vaccine to contact local officials and ask about eligibility timelines.
Department leaders also have planned for April more than 30 missions by mobile-health unit teams to rural areas across the country, in an effort to ensure veterans in hard-to-reach locations are helped. That’s on top of more than 300 missions already run since December, which have vaccinated more than 86,000 people.
At least 240,000 VA patients have tested positive for coronavirus in the last year, with more than 11,200 dying from complications related to the illness. Nationwide, nearly 30 million individuals have contracted coronavirus, and nearly 544,000 have died.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.