The U.S. military has lowered the age of eligibility to 16 for the COVID-19 vaccine in Hawaii, making most troops and their dependents eligible to get a shot.

Among the general public in the islands, residents must be at least 70 or considered “front-line essential workers” to get a vaccination according to the state’s current priority system, although Gov. David Ige announced Thursday that the minimum age would drop to 65 next week.

The military’s vaccination efforts are separate from the state’s, with the Pentagon managing the delivery and distribution of vaccines to installations across the globe. In Hawaii, Tripler Army Medical Center is the hub for the military’s COVID-19 response.

Lt. Mareike Conmy, a nurse at Branch Health Clinic Kaneohe Bay, provided pre-screening for COVID-19 vaccine recipients at the Wheeler Army Airfield COVID-19 vaccine drive-thru on March 8, 2021. This tri-service drive-thru initiative is run by augmented medical staff from the Navy, Army, and Air Force on Oahu, delivering Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines to TRICARE beneficiaries.
Lt. Mareike Conmy, a nurse at Branch Health Clinic Kaneohe Bay, pre-screens COVID-19 vaccine recipients at the Wheeler Army Airfield drive-thru clinic. Courtesy: Naval Health Clinic Hawaii

“Our COVID-19 vaccine operations across the Hawaii Military Health System on Oahu are going exceedingly well,” said Col. Martin Doperak, the commander at Tripler. “There are numerous vaccine operation sites across Oahu for our military beneficiaries to choose from.”

Among the sites is a drive-thru vaccine site at Wheeler Army Airfield, which opened Monday and will conclude the first round of vaccinations on Friday. It will reopen on March 29 to allow people to get their second doses. Military leaders are considering opening other drive-thru locations.

The Wheeler site is staffed by a mix of military and civilian health care workers from Desmond T. Doss Health Clinic and Naval Health Clinic Hawaii. Service members and dependents must be registered in advance.

“This site continues to receive overwhelmingly positive feedback as an efficient option for our beneficiaries who don’t even need to get out of their vehicle to receive their vaccine,” Doperak said.

Most vaccines are mandatory for active duty troops, but defense officials have stressed that COVID-19 vaccines will remain voluntary as long as the vaccines are only available under “emergency authorization” from the Food and Drug Administration.

Concerns were raised last month when military officials said as many as a third of eligible service members and military family members declined the vaccine when offered.

Defense Health Agency chief Lt. Gen. Ron Place told reporters during a teleconference during a visit to Hawaii that there was a range of reasons why some declined and many more intended to get the shots. Several of those whom Place talked to about why they declined said they felt it should go to those with a higher risk of complications before them.

The U.S. military’s coronavirus infection rates in Hawaii have been secret to the public since the Pentagon instructed local commanders to stop discussing COVID-19 cases.

However, while military officials have declined to discuss the number of infections and vaccinations, they insist that stopping the spread of the virus is a top priority. “We are actively encouraging all eligible beneficiaries to receive their COVID-19 vaccines,” said Doperak.

The Department of Veterans Affairs Pacific Island Healthcare System, which is responsible for veterans in Hawaii and the U.S. Pacific Island territories, operates independently from the military.

It is currently giving vaccines to veterans registered within their system that are 65 or older, or who are deemed essential workers in the areas in which they live, as well as to some civilian residents in American Samoa.

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