Thousands of service members are refusing to receive the COVID-19 vaccination and at this point, there’s not much more that frustrated military commanders can do about it.
About two-thirds of the military have been rolling up their sleeve for the coronavirus vaccine, which means about one-third are declining to participate, Pentagon officials acknowledged Wednesday during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.
“We believe the vaccine is the right thing to do. It’s clearly safe for service members,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro, vice director for operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We need to continue to educate our force.”
They didn’t address what reasons the reluctant service members are giving for refusing, but a number of myths and rumors have spread about the COVID-19 vaccine, including that it isn’t safe because it was developed in a relatively short amount of time and it can make someone infertile.
Since vaccinations of the troops began last month, military leaders have worked to knock down suspicions in the ranks with a full-court public relations campaign including having senior Pentagon officials get the shot.
Until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives its full approval of the drug — rather than the emergency authorization it’s now operating under — the Pentagon says it cannot require its personnel to take it.
“There are no circumstances where the (Department of Defense) has the legislative authority to do that. Certain circumstances require actions outside [it],” said Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, staff surgeon for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The military is collecting data on the acceptance rates within the ranks and Dr. Friedrichs said their data shows their experience mirrors that of other communities.
“I believe the legislation is sufficient to address the circumstances that we’re facing today,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal, California Democrat, was surprised that troops today can opt-out of the COVID-19 vaccine. He compared it to his own experience in the U.S. Marine Corps when it was time for a vaccination.
“We just got in a line, and they zapped us. Everybody got it,” Mr. Carbajal said.
In Norfolk, Virginia, about 6,000 sailors assigned to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group lined up for the COVID-19 vaccination prior to pulling away for their second deployment of the year. About 80 percent of the crews from the different ships in the strike group received the vaccine, officials said.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna versions of the vaccine were administered to the crews aboard the ships.
“The vaccine is a great sign of all-around efforts to ensure health and safety of our sailors,” said Capt. Joseph A. Baggett, commander of the USS Monterey. “Many sailors feel they’re doing their part in helping make this pandemic a thing of the past. They choose to do it for themselves, families and shipmates.”