By Oliver Milman
Defense secretary Lloyd Austin acknowledges hesitancy and says ‘we have to work to hard to dispel rumors and provide facts’
Reluctance to be vaccinated for Covid-19 is now rife in the US military, with about a third of troops on active duty or in the national guard refusing to be administered the vaccine.
Soldiers have previously been given approved vaccines on a mandatory basis but because the vaccines for the coronavirus have only been given an emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration, members of the military are able to opt out.
Many are choosing to do so, with military officials recently telling Congress that a third of service members have declined the shots, the New York Times reported. At the large Fort Bragg military base in North Carolina, acceptance rates for the vaccines are below 50%.
Lloyd Austin, the US defense secretary, said there was some hesitancy, especially among people of color, to get the vaccine and that the military needed to be aware the shots are safe.
“Because of some things that have happened in the past, there’s a degree of mistrust, and I think we have to collectively work hard to dispel rumors and to provide facts to people,” said Austin, who is Black and has got the vaccine himself.
“It’s been my experience that when armed with the facts, people will tend to make the right decisions.” Austin, who was speaking last week after a tour of a vaccination site in Los Angeles, said he wanted service members to talk to military health officials and read federal government guidance to be informed about the vaccines. “We want them to have the facts,” he said.
But the vaccine reluctance in the military is a reflection of broader American society, with people declining the jabs for a variety of reasons. Some mistrust the emergency approval of the vaccine, others feel unthreatened by a pandemic that has claimed more than 500,000 lives in the US while some have been convinced by baseless conspiracy theories, spread on social media, that the vaccines are a form of societal control involving implanted microchips.
“The army tells me what, how and when to do almost everything,” Sgt Tracey Carroll, who is based at Fort Sill, an army post in Oklahoma, told the New York Times. “They finally asked me to do something and I actually have a choice, so I said no.”
On Friday, an expert advisory panel recommended the authorization of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine which, if approved, would become the third Covid vaccine available to the public and provide the US with enough doses to cover its whole population.
But the country could struggle to achieve herd immunity from the virus if enough people decline to take the vaccine. According to a CBS poll released on Friday, a quarter of Americans said they will not take the vaccine, with a further quarter only saying they would “maybe” get the jab.
Skepticism of vaccines has accelerated in the US in recent years, according to an analysis published in the Lancet last week.
Distrust of the medical community and poor public information campaigns are partly to blame, the analysis stated, as well as organized misinformation campaigns. “In the past, the US anti-vaccine movement generally operated at the fringes of society, but it has now expanded its reach through increased political activities and amplification on the internet, social media, and e-commerce platforms,” it added.
Kamala Harris sought to assure Americans of the safety of the vaccines after sharing details of her own mild side effects after getting a shot. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people can experience temporary fever, chills and tiredness after getting vaccinated.
“I got vaccinated. I can tell you, first of all, that these vaccines are safe. It will save your life,” the US vice-president told MSNBC last week, although she acknowledged some reluctance stems from previous unethical medical experiments performed on people of color in the US.
“Yes, we must speak truth about the history of medical testing in this country. We must be honest about the fact that people have a righteous skepticism about how it has been used, how it has been tested and on whom it will be used. But I promise you and I am telling you this vaccine is safe.”