WASHINGTON – Americans entering the military understand the loss of personal freedom. Many of their daily activities are prescribed, as are their hairstyles, clothing, and personal conduct.
So when it comes to taking a coronavirus vaccine, many troops – especially enlisted youth as opposed to their officers – see a rare opportunity to exercise their agency.
“The military tells me what, how and when to do almost everything,” said Sgt. Tracey Carroll, who is based out of Fort Sill, an Army post in Oklahoma. “They finally asked me to do something and I have a real choice, so I said no.”
Sergeant Carroll, 24, represents a wide range of members of the military – a largely young and healthy group of Americans from all corners of the country – who refuse to be vaccinated, which for now is optional among staff. They cite a range of political and health concerns.
But this reluctance among young soldiers is a warning to civilian health officials about the potential hole in large-scale immunity that medical professionals deem necessary for Americans to reclaim their collective lives.
“Ultimately our military is our company,” said Dr. Michael S. Weiner, former Department of Defense chief medical officer, who now holds the same role for Maximus, a government contractor and technology company. “They have the same social media, the same families, the same issues as society as a whole.”
About a third of active duty or National Guard soldiers refused to take the vaccine, military officials recently told Congress. In some places, like Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the country’s largest military installation, acceptance rates are below 50%.
“We thought we would be in a better position in terms of acceptance rate,” said Col. Joseph Buccino, a spokesperson at Fort Bragg, one of the first military sites to offer the vaccine.
Although Pentagon officials say they do not collect specific data on those who refuse the vaccine, it is widely believed that refusal rates are much higher among younger members and that enlisted staff are more likely to say no than those who refuse the vaccine. officers. Military spouses appear to share this hesitation: In a December poll of 674 active-duty family members conducted by Blue Star Families, a military advocacy group, 58% said they would not allow their children to receive the vaccine.
For many soldiers, the reluctance reflects the concerns of civilians who have said in various public health polls that they will not take the vaccine. Many fear that the vaccines are unsafe or have been developed too quickly.
Some of the concerns stem from the misinformation plaguing Facebook and other social media, including the false rumor that the vaccine contains a microchip designed to monitor recipients, that it will permanently deactivate the body’s immune system, or that it will permanently shut down the body’s immune system. it is a form of government. control.
In some ways, vaccines are the new masks: a preventative measure against the virus that has been politicized.
There are many military members like Sergeant Carroll, officials said, citing the rare chance of avoiding a vaccine among the many required, especially for those deploying overseas.
Young Americans who are not in the military, and who think they don’t have to worry about falling seriously ill from the coronavirus, are likely to adopt their own version of the challenge, especially in the face of confusing information and sometimes contradictory on how much protection offered by the vaccine.
“I don’t think anyone likes to be told what to do,” Dr. Weiner said. “There’s a line in American DNA that says, ‘Just tell me what to do so I know what to press.’ “
Other soldiers cite the anthrax vaccine, which was believed to cause unwanted effects in members of the military in the late 1990s, as proof that the military shouldn’t be on the front lines of a new vaccine.
In many cases, the grounds for refusal include all of the above.
A 24-year-old female first-class aviator in Virginia said she refused the shot even though she was an emergency medic, like many of her squadron. She only shared her point on condition of anonymity because, like most enlisted members, she is not allowed to speak to the news media without official approval.
“I would rather not be the one testing this vaccine,” she explained in an email. She also said that since access to vaccines became a campaign theme during the White House race in 2020, she was more skeptical and added that some of her colleagues had told her they would rather part ways with it. army rather than taking the vaccine if it did. mandatory.
The military has offered the vaccine to older personnel, medical front-line troops, immediate response and contingency forces, some contractors from these groups, and some dependents of active-duty troops. .
So far, hundreds of thousands of people in these categories have been shot.
The vaccine, unlike many other inoculations, is not required by the military at this time because it has been approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration. Once it becomes an approved standard vaccine, the military can order troops to take the vaccine.
The prevalence of fear about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine frustrated military officials.
“There is a lot of disinformation out there,” Robert G. Salesses, acting deputy defense secretary, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. A member of the committee, Senator Gary Peters, Democrat of Michigan, suggested that military personnel who refuse vaccines “risk an entire community” where the bases are.
As military leaders insist that vaccine acceptance rates will increase as safety information continues to spread, officials and advocacy groups are scrambling to improve rates, holding sessions of briefing with health leaders like Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. On some bases, health workers follow up with those who refuse the vaccine to explore their reasons.
This week, the military held live Facebook sessions with high-ranking officers to spread the word that the vaccine was a godsend, and hundreds of commentators hesitated throughout. “This vaccine has not been proven to save lives,” one person wrote.
Concern is felt at the highest level of Pentagon leadership. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III released a video on Wednesday saying, “You know, I took it myself.”
“After talking to my doctor, I thought it was the right thing to do, not only for my health, but also for my ability to do the job and contribute to our readiness,” Mr. Austin.
Many public health experts say such appeals from leaders from above may be the least effective method of convincing groups that distrust the government or authority figures.
“Many enlisted people watch an admiral get vaccinated and say, ‘I don’t see myself in you at this point in my life,’ noted Dr. Weiner. “I appreciate that you have a vaccine, but it’s not me.
Staff Sgt.Jack Jay, who is stationed at an Army base at Fort Jackson in Columbia, SC, has heard all kinds of fear, mistrust, and savage conspiracy theories from his peers – and has tried to gently share his own views.
“The reasons range from political to history of ongoing, unproven research, and due to our age group and medical condition, we are not a population at high risk for hospitalization,” said the Sergeant Jay, 33, who has already taken his photo.
“The best I can do is respect the other person’s reasons even if I don’t agree,” he said. “However, if any of my peers make false statements as if they were true, I will challenge them to support their argument with legitimate sources.”
The thread of politics weaving through these discussions complicates the conversation, Sgt. Jay said, and mirrors those he sees on Facebook and elsewhere outside of the military.
“The military is just a good barometer of what is likely to happen at the national level, because of our country’s thinking processes at the moment,” he said.
In making decisions, “the most important factor is knowing someone who has received the vaccine,” said Jennifer Akin, director of applied research at Blue Star Families. “There are so many stories out there, it’s hard to know what to do. We try to provide people with reliable information from reliable sources. “