Thousands of service members saying no to COVID-19 vaccine

Service
Image Credit: U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Anthony Nelson Jr./Department of Defense via AP
In this Feb. 9, 2021 photo provided by the Department of Defense, Hickam 15th Medical Group host the first COVID-19 mass vaccination on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

WASHINGTON (AP) — By the thousands, U.S. service members are refusing or putting off the COVID-19 vaccine as frustrated commanders scramble to knock down internet rumors and find the right pitch that will persuade troops to get the shot.

Some Army units are seeing as few as one-third agree to the vaccine. Military leaders searching for answers believe they have identified one potential convincer: an imminent deployment. Navy sailors on ships heading out to sea last week, for example, were choosing to take the shot at rates exceeding 80% to 90%.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro, vice director of operations for the Joint Staff, told Congress on Wednesday that “very early data” suggests that just up to two-thirds of the service members offered the vaccine have accepted.

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That’s higher than the rate for the general population, which a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation put at roughly 50%. But the significant number of forces declining the vaccine is especially worrisome because troops often live, work and fight closely together in environments where social distancing and wearing masks, at times, are difficult.

The military’s resistance also comes as troops are deploying to administer shots at vaccination centers around the country and as leaders look to American forces to set an example for the nation.

“We’re still struggling with what is the messaging and how do we influence people to opt-in for the vaccine,” said Brig. Gen. Edward Bailey, the surgeon for Army Forces Command. He said that in some units just 30% have agreed to take the vaccine, while others are between 50% and 70%. Forces Command oversees major Army units, encompassing about 750,000 Army, Reserve and National Guard soldiers at 15 bases.

At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where several thousand troops are preparing for future deployments, the vaccine acceptance rate is about 60%, Bailey said. That’s “not as high as we would hope for front-line personnel,” he said.

Bailey has heard all the excuses.

“I think the most amusing one I heard was, ‘The Army always tells me what to do, they gave me a choice, so I said no’,” he said.

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Service leaders have vigorously campaigned for the vaccine. They have held town halls, written messages to the force, distributed scientific data, posted videos, and even put out photos of leaders getting vaccinated.

For weeks, the Pentagon insisted it did not know how many troops were declining the vaccine. On Wednesday they provided few details on their early data.

Officials from individual military services, however, said in interviews with The Associated Press that refusal rates vary widely, depending on a service member’s age, unit, location, deployment status and other intangibles.

The variations make it harder for leaders to identify which arguments for the vaccine are most persuasive. Because the vaccine hasn’t gotten final approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s voluntary. But Defense Department officials say that soon may change.

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About 40 Marines gathered recently in a California conference room for an information session from medical staff. One officer, who was not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Marines are more comfortable posing questions about the vaccine in smaller groups.

The officer said one Marine, citing a widely circulated and false conspiracy theory, said: “I heard that this thing is actually a tracking device.” The medical staff, said the officer, quickly debunked that theory, and pointed to the Marine’s cellphone, noting that it’s an effective tracker.

Other frequent questions revolved around possible side effects or health concerns, including the vaccine’s possible impact on pregnant women. Army, Navy and Air Force officials say they hear much the same.

The Marine Corps is a relatively small service and troops are generally younger. Similar to the general population, younger service members are more likely to decline or ask to wait. In many cases, military commanders said, younger troops say they have had the coronavirus or known others who had it, and concluded it was not bad.

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