As vaccine news and Covid-19 case resurgence dominate the media’s attention, the military and its Covid-19 experience seem to be flying under the radar. While we at home isolate and reduce our societal interaction, military members continue to interact with hundreds if not thousands of other military personnel every day. How has Covid-19 impacted the United States’ armed forces, and will vaccines enable them to return to business as usual?

While their media presence is limited, the military has dealt with more than their fair share of Covid-19. According to the Department of Defense (DoD), military personnel had over 104,000 cases since the start of the pandemic. While a small number in reference to the 180,000 cases the United States confirms every day, the military is comprised of only about 1.3 million active-duty personnel. Therefore, over 8% of military personnel have had a confirmed case of Covid-19, compared to about .5% of Americans.

This is likely not more significant news because of the military’s lack of severe Covid-19 cases. Only 14 have died from the 104,000 cases, or a death rate about 130 times lower than the United States’ death rate. As severe Covid-19 tends to affect the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions more frequently, it makes sense that a group comprised of healthy, in-shape soldiers under forty were not inhibited much by Covid-19. The spread rate is still concerning as we don’t know the long-term effects of contracting the virus.

It seems the close-quarter nature of military life allows the virus to flourish. On the USS Theodore Roosevelt, Covid-19 was able to spread rapidly among its crew of 4,779. Over a few weeks, 1,331 members of the crew tested positive or were suspected positive for Covid-19. A report by the New England Journal of Medicine suggested the tight living quarters of the ship and proximity to those infected enabled the virus to spread like wildfire. While only one of the crew died from Covid-19 related complications, who is to say the unknown long-term complications those 1,331 may face later in life?

The DoD is learning from its mistakes, like the USS Theodore Roosevelt, from the early pandemic. Efforts to quarantine sick personnel and standardize mask use have drastically improved in recent months. DoD officials are working with the Department of Health and Human Services to get the military vaccinated as a priority group. Personnel deployed abroad, such as in South Korea or Japan, have already begun vaccine administration. DoD officials may be pinning their hopes on the vaccine with the assumption that they can continue operating business as usual.

Though, we still do not know much about the Covid-19 vaccine’s neutralizing antibodies. Preliminary data released by Moderna suggests that their vaccine’s neutralizing antibodies may deteriorate quicker than many were hoping for. The other vaccines have yet to release their antibody data, but that trend could be damaging to the thought that vaccines are a silver bullet for the pandemic.

Additionally, these vaccines may not protect against infection and transmission, only symptoms. Preliminary data on whether the vaccines stop the SARS-CoV-2 virus from infecting a human host is still unavailable. That means that those in the military who are vaccinated may still transmit the virus to those who haven’t. 

Despite the unknowns regarding vaccines, the rest of society would do well to follow the military’s lead and their Covid-19 precautions. While their infection rate remains high, their attention to close-quarter Covid-19 protections on planes and ships could be a blueprint for the rest of us. Mandatory mask use, distancing as much as possible, regular rapid testing, and swift quarantine procedures are all policies that could save thousands of lives in the coming months if applied to the larger population.

Any high-capacity military operation will yield positive Covid-19 cases. While the not ideal due to the unknown long-term dangers of Covid-19, the military is implementing policies to protect their personnel, which should be noted by the larger population. Top-level health officials have indicated January will be “the darkest time of the pandemic.” Tens of thousands will die in the coming weeks. We must follow the military’s lead and immediately implement common-sense Covid-19 policies as many other major nations already have.