APRIL 12, 2021 – As the Army strives to get back to normal operations this year, increasing the number of vaccinated personnel will enable readiness and expedite the reopening process, said Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael A. Grinston Thursday.
Army senior leaders hope to have 80% of the force vaccinated before the end of June, as the service continues to distribute an average of 70,000 vaccinations per week, Grinston said during a livestreamed event on COVID-19.
Grinston and Dr. Steven Cersovsky, deputy director of the Army Public Health Center, engaged in an open conversation with three Soldiers about their decision to whether or not be vaccinated. The discussion provided leaders an opportunity to further explain the vaccination process, clarify any misconceptions, and share their thoughts on how the vaccine will improve the force.
“If we were to get called, we have to be healthy and ready to protect our nation,” Grinston said. “If we have a whole bunch of people on restrictive movement [related to the number of vaccinated personnel], it puts a limit on how ready we are as an Army.”
The virus is not impacting the Army’s overall readiness level, Grinston emphasized. However, virus-related movement restrictions connected to the permanent change of station process or mission requirements can create a series of challenges as the Army moves toward a semi-normal operating state.
“We need to help our nation get through this,” said Grinston, adding that the Army is closely monitoring and supporting COVID-19 efforts around the nation.
Last week, the Army deployed three more 140-person teams to support community vaccination centers in Maryland, Tennessee and Wisconsin, where they’ll provide up to 3,000 vaccinations a day at each site, according to a news release from U.S. Army North.
Soldiers and other military personnel have already helped administer nearly 2 million vaccines in at least 16 states and one U.S. territory, as part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency vaccination support effort.
Returning to normal
One installation mentioned during the discussion was Fort Bragg, North Carolina. It recently reserved one of its 14 fitness centers for use by vaccinated personnel in concert with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, said Col. Joseph Buccino, public affairs officer for the XVIII Airborne Corps.
The commander has also lifted restrictions on the installation’s 21 dining facilities, allowing vaccinated personnel the option to dine in. Individuals must present an approved COVID-19 vaccination record card before entering the fitness center or sitting down to eat at a DFAC.
Recent reporting about this change has sparked some controversy, leading some Soldiers to question if this is the Army’s ongoing approach to force people to get vaccinated. Army senior leaders are adamant that this is not the case, Grinston said.
“We are excited to have vaccinated a sufficient portion of our population that we are now able to loosen some COVID-19 restrictions,” Buccino said. “For us, this is about readiness. Reopening some of our facilities allows us to gain readiness and allows our Soldiers to resume critical social interaction.”
For more than a year, the installation’s gyms have operated at 50% capacity with no cardio equipment usage, Buccino said. The decision to open one facility for vaccinated personnel is intended to provide a safe place for members to conduct physical fitness activities and support individuals who are hesitant to exercise in a COVID environment.
“The other 13 gyms remain open with occupancy and some COVID activity restrictions to Soldiers and dependents no matter their vaccination status,” he added.
Further, Fort Bragg dining facilities and all on-post dining locations have been restricted to grab-and-go only, Buccino said.
“Understanding the mental health and teambuilding benefits of ‘breaking bread together,’ we recently authorized in-person dining, up to 50% capacity, for those who are vaccine complete,” he added. “This modification to our COVID dining measures does not prevent non-vaccine complete Soldiers from using the DFACs or any other food services, as they can continue to use the grab-and-go option.”
Both Fort Bragg and Army senior leaders emphasized that the vaccination process is entirely voluntary.
“None of our efforts to reopen facilities are designed to punish those who choose to opt-out of the vaccination,” Buccino said. “It is important to bring a sense of normalcy back to our Soldiers for their mental, physical, and personal wellbeing. The research and studies support the efficacy of the vaccine, and we want to build trust in the vaccine while providing our community a safe place to work and live.”
The recent changes at Fort Bragg coincide with Grinston’s belief that Soldiers should receive some form of advantage for getting vaccinated. If vaccinated personnel still have to wear a mask and stay 6 feet apart while working out, what would be the point, he asked.
According to the CDC’s domestic travel guidelines, vaccinated personnel also receive an advantage while traveling in the U.S., Cersovsky said.
Vaccine-complete personnel no longer need to complete pre- or post-travel COVID-19 testing or quarantine, he added. Individuals will still need to wear a mask when utilizing public transportation methods, as they will be around other people who are not fully vaccinated.
For international travel, the CDC also no longer recommends any pre-travel testing or quarantines unless the destination country has a contradictory requirement. Upon return to the U.S., the CDC recommends all personnel to get tested, regardless of their vaccination status.
The lack of human interaction brought on by the virus is also a concern, Grinston said. The inability to see a person’s physical reaction because they are wearing a mask can limit the flow of communication. As Soldiers and leaders go to and from a location, they miss an opportunity to stay socially connected.
“I’m worried about our behavioral health. One way to get out of this is we have to get the vaccine so that we can start interacting like we used to,” he added.
Grinston is also concerned for all personnel serving overseas. Their inability to travel due to local restrictions has impacted their ability to connect with family.
Overall, it is essential for all personnel to get vaccinated, not just for themselves or their immediate family, but for the 10-20 other people they happen to see daily, Grinston added.
“I’m a healthy male with no pre-existing conditions,” he said. “But I think about those others that I would hurt because I shared the virus. And I think that’s one of those personal reasons why I think it is important for us to get vaccinated.
“Sometimes it’s not about my health — it is about the health of others that may not even know that I am infected.”
By Devon L. Suits, Army News Service