(ATTN: ADDS more comments on incoming cases, no-mask parties in last 8 paras, 2nd photo)
By Choi Soo-hyang and Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Dec. 14 (Yonhap) -- The first batch of a coronavirus vaccine for U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) is expected to be shipped to South Korea as soon as it is approved for emergency use, Gen. Robert Abrams said Monday.
The USFK commander made the remark in an interview with the American Forces Network radio station, saying the vaccine to be used for overseas U.S. personnel is likely to be Moderna's, though the U.S. has begun distributing Pfizer's vaccine across the country.
"We expect that to happen anytime soon ... probably in the next week or so," Abrams said of emergency use authorization (EUA) for Moderna's vaccine. "So I think we'll see the vaccine, you know get shipped as soon as the EUA is approved."
Abrams said it could be "well into the new year" before USFK sees a COVID vaccine.
"But it is coming," he said.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Defense said in a release that Allgood Army Community Hospital inside Camp Humphreys in South Korea will be one of four sites outside the continental U.S. that will receive the initial vaccination.
The commander said it could take as long as until the upcoming spring for all of the USFK members to be vaccinated as the doses will be rolled out in stages. The first doses will go to USFK's medical personnel and first responders.
"The first priority when we finally get our first shipment, it'll be focused on health care, emergency services personnel and critical support, and then as the production line really kicks in, as more and more comes in there, there are various tiers that will come out of it," Abrams said.
While noting that getting the vaccination is voluntary, the commander said he "highly" encourages its members to get the vaccine, saying it is "pretty safe."
"Whenever it gets here, you know, I'm happy to step into the breach," the general said.
The remarks came as South Korea reported its largest daily caseload ever of 1,030 new coronavirus cases Sunday, setting yet another fresh high after reporting 950 cases the previous day.
Over the past few weeks, the country has reported hundreds of daily new cases due to locally transmitted cases from the greater Seoul area, which houses around half of the nation's 51 million population.
Abrams, however, said that he "got supreme confidence" that South Korean health authorities "will be successful in suppressing this most recent outbreak."
Up until Monday, USFK has reported a total of 434 COVID-19 patients, most of whom tested positive upon arrival here.
Asked about the need for mandatory pre-departure testing for all service members, Abrams said he made the very suggestion to the U.S. government, but it does not have "a robust testing capability" and such an initial test does not guarantee that entrants will be COVID-19 free.
Currently, only U.S. Army members are required to have a negative test result prior to their departure for South Korea. The rule does not apply to those from other branches of service.
"There is zero chance of that virus getting spread to either other people on our bases or to the Korean people because of the strict control that we have of those folks," Abrams said.
All USFK-affiliated individuals arriving in South Korea are required to undergo a virus test and quarantine for 14 days. Medical personnel administer a second test prior to their release. A total of 82 patients have been confirmed in their second test so far, according to the commander.
As for recent incidents where USFK service members held parties at their bases without wearing masks and ignoring social distancing rules, Abrams said, "That is unacceptable, so we are going to own it and put measures in place."
Despite physical distancing, Abrams urged its members to "maintain touch and contact" with each other to minimize diverse risks associated with less interpersonal connections in this time of the pandemic and winter. A USFK official said that the command sees an increase of suicide attempts during the winter season.
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