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Military grappling with COVID-19: leaders say all troops won't get vaccine until late July or August

So far, more than 916,000 troops and DoD civilian employees have received at least the first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.

WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic is having a major impact on the U.S. military.

According to the Department of Defense, the military branches have recorded 235,258 cumulative positive cases. Of the 277 DoD deaths, 21 of those who died were uniformed military members.

Included in that group is Norfolk-based USS Wasp Aviation Support Equipment Technician 1st Class Marcglenn L. Orcullo, 42, who died last Friday from complications related to COVID-19.

There has also been an impact on operations.

"Over the last year, nearly 200 Navy ships have suffered outbreaks, which in some cases disrupted training and operations across the service; hundreds of training exercises have been canceled, curtailed or altered," said Rep. Mike Rogers (R- Alabama) during a meeting Wednesday of the House Armed Services Committee.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt last year saw more than 1,400 members of its crew test positive for the virus. One sailor died and the aircraft carrier was sidelined for 55 days.

Lawmakers sought assurances from Pentagon leaders on what proactive steps are being taken to protect the troops.

The Assistant Secretary of Defense said more than 916,000 vaccines have been administered to uniformed members and civilian employees so far.

"Since the start, DoD has protected its people, supported the national response, ensured the readiness of the force to meet its national security missions," said Robert Salesses.

He predicted that it will be "sometime in late July/August" before everyone in the military is inoculated.

One current challenge is the fact that getting vaccinated is strictly voluntary and so far there has only been around a 70 percent compliance rate among the nation's 1.3 million active-duty military personnel.

The emergency use authorizations for the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccines prevent commanders from requiring their use without Food and Drug Administration approval.

Simply put, military leaders can't force subordinates to get the shots. All they can do is encourage it.

"It hasn't achieved final FDA approval and so there's a real limit legally that we have to make it make it mandatory for our troops and their families," said Department of Defense spokesman John Kirby at a Pentagon news conference on Wednesday. "That's why it's a voluntary basis. That's why I don't have a timeline on it."

Added  Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro, the vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs: “We need to continue to educate our force and help them understand the benefits [of vaccines] and ensure leadership is involved,” 

In a statement related to the death of the USS Wasp sailor, U.S. Fleet Forces Command this week said: "The battle against COVID is not over, and it is imperative all of us, especially those who live and work in the close-quarters of the shipboard environment, continue to practice the CDC and DoD measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19."

The statement continued: "Aboard Wasp, just as with all of our ships, we implore our Sailors and civilian workers to minimize contact with others, clean often, wear your masks, and educate yourself about the COVID-19 vaccine using credible sources to make an informed choice when it is your turn to opt-in for vaccination. We can only get through this together— this is an all-hands evolution.”