By the thousands, American service members refuse or postponeas frustrated commanders rush to knock down internet rumors and find the right tone that will persuade troops to fire.
Some Army units see that only a third agree with the vaccine. Military leaders seeking answers believe they have identified a compelling potential: an imminent deployment. Navy sailors on ships heading out to sea last week, for example, chose to fire at rates in excess of 80% to 90%.
Air Force Major General Jeff Taliaferro, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress Wednesday that “very early data” suggests that just two-thirds of service members offered the vaccine have accepted.
That’s higher than the rate for the general population, which a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey put at about 50%. But the significant number of forces rejecting the vaccine is of particular concern because troops often live, work and fight closely together in settings where social distancing and wearing of masks are sometimes difficult.
Resistance from the military also comes as troops are being deployed to administer injections at vaccination centers across the country and leaders look to US forces to set an example for the nation.
“We are still struggling with what the message is and how do we influence people to choose the vaccine,” said Brigadier General Edward Bailey, a surgeon with the Armed Forces Command. He said that in some units only 30% have agreed to take the vaccine, while in others they are between 50% and 70%. The Forces Command oversees the main Army units, which comprise about 750,000 Army, Reserve and National Guard soldiers at 15 bases.
At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where several thousand soldiers are preparing for future deployments, the vaccine acceptance rate is about 60%, Bailey said. That “is not as high as we would expect for front-line personnel,” he said.
Bailey has heard all the excuses.
“I think the funniest thing I heard was, ‘The Army always tells me what to do, they gave me a choice, so I said no,'” he said.
Service leaders have campaigned vigorously for the vaccine. They have held town halls, forcibly written messages, distributed scientific data, posted videos and even posted photos of leaders getting vaccinated.
For weeks, the Pentagon insisted it didn’t know how many soldiers declined the vaccine. On Wednesday they provided few details about their first data.
However, individual military services officials said in interviews with The Associated Press that rejection rates vary widely, depending on a service member’s age, unit, location, deployment status and other intangibles.
The variations make it difficult for leaders to identify which arguments in favor of the vaccine are most compelling. The Food and Drug Administration has allowed emergency use of the vaccine, so it is voluntary. But Defense Department officials say they hope that will change soon.
“We can’t make it mandatory yet,” Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis, commander of the Navy’s second fleet, said last week. “I can tell you that we will probably make it mandatory as soon as we can, just like we do with the flu vaccine.”
About 40 Marines recently gathered in a California conference room for a medical staff briefing. An officer, who was not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Marines are more comfortable asking questions about the vaccine in smaller groups.
The officer said a Marine, citing a widely circulated and false conspiracy theory, said: “I heard this is actually a tracking device.” Medical personnel, the officer said, were quick to disprove that theory and pointed to the Marine’s cell phone, pointing out that it is an effective tracker.
Other frequently asked questions revolved around possible side effects or health problems, even for pregnant women. Army, Navy and Air Force officials say they hear the same thing.
The Marine Corps is a relatively small service and the troops are generally younger. Like 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 know other people who have, and concluded that it was not bad.
“What they don’t see is that the 20-year-olds who actually got seriously ill, were hospitalized or died, or the people who appear to be fine, but then turned out to develop lung and heart abnormalities,” Bailey said.
A ray of hope has been the deployments.
Norfolk, Virginia-based Lewis said last week that sailors from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, which is operating in the Atlantic, agreed to fire at a rate of about 80%. Sailors from the USS Iwo Jima and Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, who are also deploying, had rates of more than 90%.
Bailey said the Army is looking at opportunities to reduce the two-week quarantine period for units that are deployed to Europe if service members are largely vaccinated and the host nation agrees. The US Army in Europe can reduce the quarantine time to five days if 70% of the unit is vaccinated, and that incentive could work, he said.
Acceptance numbers decline among those not being deployed, military officials said.
General James McConville, Army Chief of Staff, used his own experience to encourage troops to get vaccinated. “When asked how he felt, I said it was a lot less painful than some of the meetings I attended at the Pentagon.”
Colonel Jody Dugai, commander of the Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital in Fort Polk, Louisiana, said that so far the squad-level talks, with eight to ten colleagues, have been successful and that getting more information helps.
At the Fort Polk Joint Readiness Training Center, Brigadier General David Doyle has a double challenge. As the base commander, you must persuade the nearly 7,500 soldiers at the base to take the shot and you must ensure that the thousands of soldiers entering and leaving for training exercises are safe.
Doyle said that the acceptance rate at his base is between 30% and 40%, and that most of the time it is the younger troops that decline.
“They tell me they don’t have much confidence in the vaccine because they think it was done too quickly,” he said. Top health officials have vouched for the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.
Doyle said it seems like peers are often more influential than leaders in persuading troops, a sentiment echoed by Bailey, the Armed Forces Command surgeon.
“We are trying to find out who the influencers are,” Bailey said. “Is he a squad leader or a platoon sergeant in the Army? I think he probably is. Someone who is more their age and interacts with them more on a regular basis than the general officer who takes his picture and says: Shot . ‘”