A snapshot of National Guard troops serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 response shows that citizen soldiers may be even more reluctant than active troops to take the voluntary vaccine.
Roughly one-third of active-duty troops who have been offered the vaccine have refused to take the shot. But low acceptance rates from Guard members in two states show that the opt-out rate could be significantly higher across that force.
Currently, the Guard does not track vaccine acceptance rates nationally, but Army Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, adjutant general for the Washington National Guard, said he is "tracking this pretty much on a daily basis."
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"Right now, right around 39% of our force has opted in to get vaccinated," Daugherty told reporters Friday during a roundtable marking the one-year anniversary of the Guard's COVID-19 mission. "We have to walk a fine line; we are not actually allowed to encourage people to take the vaccine. Even though I would love to do that, I don't."
In the Nebraska Guard, "we have got about a 30% take rate, but that number is skewed a little bit," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac, adjutant general for the Nebraska Guard.
He noted that the acceptance rate is higher among Air Guard members because they are in one location, compared to Army Guard members, who are spread out across the states.
"I have Army National Guard formations in 23 different communities, and so it takes time to get to them, to get the vaccine to those appropriate locations to give soldiers the opportunity," Bohac said.
White House Chief Medical Adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said Thursday that U.S. service members who are eligible to receive the vaccine but opt out are inadvertently "part of the problem of lengthening the pandemic," CNBC reported.
"You've got to think of your own health, which is really very important, but you got to think about your societal obligation, including people close to you personally as well as other members of families of other individuals," Fauci said in the CNBC story.
Part of the challenge is that the vaccine is still voluntary, and leaders are not allowed to pressure troops to take the shot.
"We just try to educate people on the potential benefits of getting the vaccine, and we are going the best we can to let people know that we've got vaccine available and there are some good points for opting in. But I can't go beyond that to the point where I would appear to be having undue command influence in telling people to get vaccinated because it's not a requirement yet," Daugherty said.
In February, Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, commander of U.S. Second Fleet, said the Navy will probably have to make the vaccine "mandatory as soon as we can, just like we do with the flu vaccine."
The Nebraska Guard is having some success using medical professionals in the ranks to answer questions about the vaccine, Bohac said.
"One of the great things for us here in Nebraska is my senior Army National Guard surgeon general is a critical care pulmonologist ... and so he is an ideal expert to the impacts of the disease but also to make an assessment of the vaccine and provide people information, so we have actually done some myth-busting kinds of outreach," Bohac said. "And we also put medical teams out to the formations and make them available to do Q and A, which I think is the most important strategy that we have right now."
Guard Bureau Chief Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson said Guard members choose to opt out for "a lot of different reasons," but education efforts are starting to improve the acceptance rate.
"And also, we are in March now and it won't really be until later in April that we actually have enough vaccinations for each and every one of our Guardsmen," Hokanson said. "So we still, like our civilian communities, have a limited supply ... and so it won't be until later on that we really know.
"So, between now and then, the best we can do is ... [have] town halls and allowing soldiers and airmen to ask questions and also to educate them and really talk to them about the benefits of the vaccination and also the concerns that we are seeing with the disease itself."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.
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