Thousands of soldiers are still not vaccinated against COVID-19, and Army leaders are moving to educate the unvaccinated as the deadly Delta variant sweeps through the country.
Col. Owen Price, the Fort Bragg Force Health Protection officer, said vaccine hesitancy mostly spurs from health concerns and latching onto misinformation mostly found on social media.
“There’s two camps,” Price told Military.com in an interview. “One is they just haven’t heard the message that resonates with them to overcome hesitancy. Whether that concerns pregnancy or side effects, long-term health effects are a big concern for some. The other camp is people who have just received a ton of misinformation, and it’s very hard to unseat that even when providing them facts.”
Price said soldiers who have come to recent education sessions on the vaccine are misinformed about it. He said in his experience, soldiers are usually not pedaling conspiracy theories surrounding the virus, but some have leaned on random, faulty information from social media, versus the science, and they are coming with concerns from a health conscious point of view. He said the key now is talking to soldiers individually and addressing their concerns respectfully.
“This has been an uptick recently, with soldiers coming to education sessions with a list they found online -- with ingredients such as metals and plastics, which aren’t in the vaccine at all,” Price said. “One soldier had an outlandish figure of people that have died from the vaccine but couldn’t explain where they got that information from. There’s crazy stuff out there.”
But some soldiers have health concerns, even if experts say the research doesn’t back up those fears. Pvt. Abegail Finck, who is stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, has a family history of an autoimmune disease she’s afraid the vaccine could inflame. She is also pregnant and concerned whether the vaccines could harm her or her baby.
“For me, I’ll keep wearing the mask to work,” she said. “ This being my first child, I didn’t want to risk anything.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the vaccines are safe for pregnant women and recommend meeting with a health-care provider to go over concerns.
For other soldiers, some are concerned with having feverish symptoms for a day or two, which could mean missing out on training days or not being able to attend a school that will help them with promotion.
“My unit tried to get us all vaccinated, but I was going to Air Assault school soon,” a non-commissioned officer with the Texas National Guard told Military.com on the condition of anonymity.
Air Assault is a grueling 10-day course where soldiers have to pass numerous physical challenges such as a long ruck march and obstacle course.
“I probably should still go get it, but I didn’t want to be knocked out or be the one in a million dude who gets the heart problem, be benched forever,” he said referring to myocarditis,. a rare heart inflammation condition associated with vaccines.
In some cases, a delay in getting vaccinated is simply due to finding the time. On active duty, vaccine access isn’t a problem. According to multiple soldiers interviewed by Military.com across several bases, vaccines have been readily available for months. However, long lines have delayed some in getting the shots.
Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Meaney, who is stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., told Military.com that he was vaccinated this month after the vaccine has been available for nearly half a year, mostly because of the long wait times.
“My only hold back was the line,” he said. “You could not even park; there was an overflow for the overflow.”
Joe Buccino, a spokesman for the XVIII Airborne Corps, recently launched a podcast aimed at tackling the concerns soldiers have about the vaccines to educate the force. A top issue, he said, are inflated concerns of myocarditis.
“The big concern is myocarditis, real health effects, anecdotes of ‘my mom got vaccinated and she got COVID.’ These anecdotes are all things that can be defeated with research,” Buccino said.
Military.com was the first American news outlet to report on the link between myocarditis and the vaccines, as several service members were diagnosed with heart inflammation issues after being vaccinated. However, the CDC reports out of 296 million vaccine doses, only 1,226 cases of myocarditis have been reported in the U.S. Of that, as of June, only 30 service members have been reported to have the ailment post-vaccine, according to the Pentagon.
Yet most vaccine hesitancy appears to come from social media, Buccino said.
“I don’t get the sense soldiers are watching TV and turning anti-vax,” he said. “These decisions are person to person, but social media frankly is the big [issue].”
The White House this month has skewered Facebook for acting as a platform for disinformation and conspiracy theories. President Joe Biden said last week that the platform is “killing people” by not effectively combating misinformation, a comment he later softened.
"Anyone listening to it is getting hurt by it. It's killing people. It's bad information,” Biden said. “My hope is that Facebook, instead of taking it personally that somehow I'm saying Facebook is killing people, that they would do something about the misinformation. The outrageous misinformation about the vaccine. That's what I meant."
Roughly 70% of the active-duty force on average across all branches is fully vaccinated, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said last week, well above civilian rates. As of Friday, 56.5% of the total U.S. population is fully vaccinated, according to data from the CDC.
For the whole Army, only about 34% of the force is vaccinated. This includes the active, Reserve and Guard components. Yet, 61% of the active duty Army is fully vaccinated, according to Defense Department data obtained by Military.com, meaning low numbers on the Reserve and Guard side are bringing the average way down.
Yet the data is incomplete. The National Guard is seemingly not able to track accurately how many of its soldiers are vaccinated. Because of that, in an interview with Military.com, Col. Jennifer Schmidt, deputy surgeon general of the National Guard Bureau's Joint Staff, declined to share the force’s data on inoculations.
“We can’t guarantee the accuracy of that at the moment,” Schmidt told Military.com in an interview, referring to vaccination data.
Shortly after an interview with Schmidt, Military.com obtained data showing the Reserve and Guard are tracking barely any of its force being fully vaccinated. The Army Reserve is reporting only 23% of its force being fully vaccinated, the Army National Guard only has roughly 30% of its force reporting they are vaccinated.
There’s no evidence to suggest National Guard vaccine rejection is statistically different from the region they live in. Schmidt told Military.com that it can be more difficult for units to track which soldiers are vaccinated. Unlike active duty, many guardsmen may be seeking vaccines from the Department of Veterans Affairs or civilian clinics, which the Guard does not track automatically. She said it’s likely soldiers simply don’t think to report their vaccination status to their units.
“As we watch the news and do the studies on variants, the people that are getting sick are the unvaccinated individuals,” Schmidt said. “The vaccines work.”
In March, hesitancy among troops spurred some Democrats to demand Biden make the vaccine mandatory for all service members. The following month, Biden said he isn’t ruling out ordering the whole force to be vaccinated, but said it is a “tough call.”
In the meantime, some Army leaders are doing what they can to squash misinformation about the vaccines. Price said he has had success meeting with soldiers individually versus a large group setting. Others have added incentives. For example, the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division offered the day off following one of a soldier’s shots. In theory, a soldier could get vaccinated on a Thursday and have a three-day weekend.
Buccino hopes outreach efforts like his podcast can reach more soldiers and warns that intense pressure on unvaccinated people isn’t going to solve anything. “We have to make sure we aren’t belittling [concerns with vaccines],” he said. “Going after people on Twitter isn’t helping.”
In the meantime, the Pentagon is contemplating making COVID-19 vaccines mandatory once the Food and Drug Administration fully approves the shots. There’s currently no clear timeline for that decision.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.