U.S. military troops will begin getting required swine flu shots in the next week to 10 days, with active duty forces deploying to war zones and other critical areas going to the front of the vaccine line, a top military commander said Tuesday.
Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart also told The Associated Press that as many as 400 troops are ready to go to five regional headquarters around the country to assist federal health and emergency management officials if needed as the flu season heats up.
The Pentagon has bought 2.7 million vaccines, and 1.4 million of those will go to active duty military. National Guard troops on active duty are also required to receive the vaccine, as are civilian Defense Department employees who are in critical jobs.
As a result, the military is expected to provide health officials with an early assessment of the vaccine.
"Because I can compel people to get the shots, larger numbers will have the vaccine," said Renuart, commander of U.S. Northern Command. "They will, as a percentage of the population, be vaccinated more rapidly than many of us. So we may see some objective results, good or not, of the vaccinations."
Shots will be doled out on a priority basis, with troops preparing to deploy first, followed by other active duty forces, particularly any who might be needed to quickly respond to a hurricane or other emergency.
Families of military members will receive their shots through the military bases, who will be working with state officials and get their own shipments of the vaccine. Renuart said it appears there is enough of the vaccine to meet the military's needs.
Inoculating the military is a key requirement of the Pentagon's emergency plan, as a way to ensure that troops are available to protect the nation. They also will be on tap to provide help to states if problems come up as the flu season continues.
So far, Renuart said that between 15 and 20 troops have been dispatched to each of the five regional headquarters, to work with officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state leaders.
But the military presence could rise to 80 in each regional office if needed, he said.
"If you see the virus begin to mutate or have a broader affect, or pockets where the vaccine isn't available or is less effective," and the local authorities need help, the military would send the additional support, Renuart said.
For the general population, the first swine flu vaccine should be in some doctors' offices as early as Oct. 5, according to U.S. health officials.
The early batches will protect 6 million to 7 million people, but over time, the government expects to have a total of 250 million doses of the new vaccine. About 10 percent of that has been promised to other countries.
Vaccine shipments will go directly to doctors, clinics and other providers designated by each state.
According to the CDC, the swine flu is widespread in 26 states now, up from 21 a week ago. While the CDC doesn't have an exact count of swine flu deaths and hospitalizations, reports suggest the infection has caused more than 600 deaths and more than 9,000 hospitalizations.