Medical personnel assisting Afghan evacuees who arrive at temporary shelters in the United States have been working around-the-clock to vaccinate Afghans against a myriad of diseases, and are “rapidly approaching 100% completion of all required vaccines” for eligible individuals, military officials said Thursday.
Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), joined Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby at a briefing on Thursday to update reporters on the federal government’s progress accepting Afghan evacuees after the United States' withdrawal from Afghanistan in late August.
NORTHCOM is the agency, in support of the Department of Homeland Security, overseeing “Operation Allies Welcome,” the effort to welcome and resettle Afghans across the country.
“The U.S. government continues to take every precaution to stop the spread of COVID and other diseases, consistent with CDC guidance,” VanHerck said during Thursday’s briefing. “The task forces have undertaken vaccination campaigns and they are rapidly approaching 100% completion of all required vaccines for 100% of the eligible Afghans.”
To date, nearly 53,000 Afghans have arrived in the U.S. since evacuation operations began this summer. The temporary shelters can house up to 64,000 individuals at any one time, and officials anticipate another 14,000 Afghans will arrive in the coming weeks.
So far, only around 2,600 Afghans have been permanently resettled in communities around the U.S., and 4,000 have completed the health and safety screenings and await relocation.
“So when you do the math, you'll see that we're relying on the output to ensure that we have enough capacity for the additional remaining Afghans to come in this way,” Gen. VanHerck said.
Of those who have entered the country, nearly 84% have been vaccinated against COVID-19, according to VanHerck. VanHerck at first said Afghan evacuees were being given the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but NORTHCOM later issued a correction saying while some have received the J&J shot, the majority were given the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
It was not immediately clear if the 84% mentioned by VanHerck were fully vaccinated with either one dose of J&J or two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, or if that number reflected how many evacuees have received at least one dose of any COVID-19 vaccine. Spectrum News has reached out to the DOD for clarification.
Still, NORTHCOM maintained that "many of our Afghan guests will receive both shots of the Pfizer vaccine before they are resettled" elsewhere in the United States.
VanHerck also said the infection rate across all eight temporary housing facilities is .4%, stressing they “haven’t had significant challenges” when it comes to coronavirus infections in the Afghan evacuee population.
Officials have, in recent weeks, prioritized giving Afghans the measles vaccine, after a small measles outbreak among evacuees prompted a pause on flights last week.
As of Thursday, VanHerck said he was aware of 24 total cases of measles and 12 active cases among evacuees, but that the vaccination rate is “nearing, or will be at 100% today for measles.” The pause on evacuation flights will be lifted “in the very near future,” he predicted.
There are currently temporary housing shelters for Afghans across eight military bases: Virginia’s Fort Lee, Fort Pickett and the Quantico Marine Corps Base, Wisconsin’s Camp McCoy, Texas’ Fort Bliss, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, New Mexico’s Holloman Air Force Base and Camp Atterbury in Indiana.
VanHerck on Thursday also spoke highly of the conditions at Wisconsin’s Fort McCoy, saying of his recent visit to the facility: “Our nation’s citizens should feel confident in the work that DOD, along with our contract medical partners, [are] doing, and will continue to do to enable our Afghan guests to be ready to begin their lives in America.”
There are approximately 12,600 Afghans currently housed at Fort McCoy, and all are provided with three Halal meals per day and a location to pray, VanHerck said.
NOTE: An earlier version of this article said a majority of Afghan evacuees were given the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. This article has been updated to reflect a corrected statement issued by NORTHCOM officials that most Afghan evacuees received the Pfizer vaccine.