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The first 44,000 troops, military families, Defense Department civilians, and other personnel could be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) starting next week, defense officials have announced.

In the near future, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are expected to approve the use of a COVID-19 vaccine made by the biopharmaceutical company Pfizer on a limited basis, said Thomas McCaffery, assistant defense secretary for health affairs.

Defense Department personnel should start getting inoculated within 24 to 48 hours of the COVID-19 vaccine’s final approval, McCaffrey told reporters at a Wednesday Pentagon briefing.

The first people to be vaccinated will include healthcare providers, residents and staff of Defense Department long-term care facilities, and other essential workers, McCaffrey said.

Although military leaders are strongly encouraging personnel to get inoculated, the vaccine will not be mandatory and there will not be any penalties for troops who decide they do not want it, officials said.

“We anticipate that this [vaccine] will be approved using emergency use authorization — not a fully licensed FDA vaccination,” said Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Place, director of the Defense Health Agency. “As such, the department’s policy will be voluntary for everyone. So, there’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it: It doesn’t matter – voluntary for everyone.”

The Defense Department is recommending that everyone take the vaccine when it becomes available because the potential risks from getting inoculated are much less than the danger posed by COVID-19, Place said on Wednesday.

“As with most vaccines, some people may experience small adverse effects: arm soreness, fatigue, even a fever,” Place said on Wednesday. “The department will be fully transparent about any adverse effects that are reported and share this information with the CDC.”

If the FDA ultimately decides to license the COVID-19 vaccination, the Defense Department may make it mandatory, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said.

The COVID-19 vaccine will initially be available at 16 military installations: 13 of which are in the United States with the rest are in Germany, Japan, and South Korea.

“We will continue with this form of distribution, adding additional prioritized personnel and additional prioritized locations until 60% of DoD – roughly 11 million personnel – have received the vaccine, at which time DoD anticipates vaccine manufacturing rates to support full scale, unrestricted vaccine distribution to department personnel,” McCaffrey said. “At that point, our intent is to distribute the vaccine in the same manner the department conducts its annual influenza vaccine program.”

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