Military worried about number of troops opting out of COVID vaccine

I know what you’re thinking because I thought the same thing while reading this story. Doesn’t the Pentagon routinely mandate vaccinations for troops?

It does. But it can only order personnel to get a shot if that shot has been fully approved by the FDA for the general public. Neither Pfizer nor Moderna has received full approval; they’ve received emergency-use authorization to hasten their availability amid a terrible crisis. That bureaucratic wrinkle means that the military’s hands are momentarily tied even though protection from COVID is a matter of basic readiness. Until the FDA gets around to granting full approval, the defense department is stuck cajoling troops to get immunized instead of directing them to.

The rule limiting the Pentagon’s authority to mandate vaccinations unless they’ve been approved for public use was designed, I assume, to protect soldiers from being treated as medical guinea pigs for novel pharmaceutical treatments by Uncle Sam. That’s a good rule in the abstract but one that’s produced an absurd outcome in the case of a product that’s already been dosed out to nearly 50 million Americans en route to delivery to most of the U.S. population by the end of summer. No one’s “experimenting” on the military by giving them an mRNA vaccine at this point.

But rules are rules and vaccine skeptics within the ranks are taking advantage. And as you might guess, refuseniks are trending young.

Roughly one-third of troops on active duty or in the National Guard have declined to take the vaccine, military officials recently told Congress. In some places, such as Fort Bragg, N.C., the nation’s largest military installation, acceptance rates are below 50 percent…

While Pentagon officials say they are not collecting specific data on those who decline the vaccine, there is broad agreement that refusal rates are far higher among younger members, and enlisted personnel are more likely to say no than officers. Military spouses appear to share that hesitation: In a December poll of 674 active-duty family members conducted by Blue Star Families, a military advocacy group, 58 percent said they would not allow their children to receive the vaccine…

“I would prefer not to be the one testing this vaccine,” [one airman] explained in an email. She also said that because vaccine access had become a campaign theme during the 2020 race for the White House, she was more skeptical, and added that some of her colleagues had told her they would rather separate from the military than take the vaccine should it become mandatory.

Reports about vaccinations trending older within DOD have been circulating for at least a month. The main reason younger soldiers are more likely to refuse than older ones, I assume, is the well-known fact that you’re less likely to suffer debilitating effects from a case of COVID when you’re 25 than when you’re 65. If you’ve been led to believe that the vaccine itself is risky, the low probability of becoming seriously ill if you’re infected obviously will affect your risk calculus. Younger troops probably also spend more time online than older ones, exposing them to more anti-vax propaganda. (“Some of the concerns stem from misinformation that has run rampant on Facebook and other social media, including the false rumor that the vaccine contains a microchip devised to monitor recipients, that it will permanently disable the body’s immune system or that it is some form of government control.”) And as a matter of basic psychology, younger troops may savor an opportunity to rebel against the Pentagon’s authority over them more than the brass who typically wield that authority will.

“What we’re seeing right now is similar to what we’re seeing across the entire United States, in that there’s … a higher percentage of people who are older who are opting to have the vaccine, and it trends down with age,” said an Air Force general to the Military Times earlier this month. He’s right. According to the latest poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 77 percent of Americans 65 or over have either gotten a shot or plan to do so as soon as possible. But just 41 percent of Americans aged 18-29 say the same.

Some of the vaccine hesitancy may be military-specific, like memories of side effects caused by the anthrax vaccine in the late 1990s. But much of it might be explained by simple demographics. If it’s true that the military is more Republican than the general population then it stands to reason that it might also be more skeptical about getting the COVID vaccine. Fully 75 percent of Democrats in the general population have either gotten their first shot or will do so as soon as possible, per the KFF poll mentioned above, but just 41 percent of Republicans will. The same poll shows 41 percent of black Americans have gotten a shot or plan to do so ASAP versus 61 percent of whites, and blacks are overrepresented in the military relative to their share of the total U.S. population.

But if it’s true that the military’s vaccine hesitancy is mostly just a reflection of the general public’s then there’s room for optimism. Because the public is warming up to the idea of getting vaccinated:

As COVID-19 vaccination distribution efforts continue across the United States, the latest KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor reports that a majority (55%) of U.S. adults now say they have received at least one dose of the vaccine (18%) or that they will get it as soon as they can (37%), up from 47% in January and 34% in December. The share that wants to “wait and see” how the vaccine is working for others before getting vaccinated themselves decreased from 31% in January to 22% in February, while a persistent one in five say they will get the vaccine “only if required for work, school, or other activities” (7%) or will “definitely not” get vaccinated (15%).

Inescapably, as the number of vaccinations soars, some in the “wait and see” crowd will conclude that it must be safe or else reports of serious side effects would be widespread. The arrival of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine may soften opposition too:

The difficulty for the Pentagon in getting vaccine fencesitters to buy in is that it’s a rigidly hierarchical organization, which is great when you have the power to mandate vaccinations but possibly counterproductive when you’re forced to persuade people. One researcher pointed out to the Times that the biggest factor in convincing someone to get the jab is whether they know someone personally who’s received it themselves, evidence that trust — not pressure from authority figures — is the way to go. KFF’s data bears that out as well:

The brass can only do what it can do, which is why SecDef Lloyd Austin put out the video embedded below a few days ago. But I wonder if it wouldn’t be more effective for COs to try to identify the more popular members of their units and do what they can by way of friendly persuasion to convince those soldiers to take the plunge. Having someone who’s liked and trusted by many of his comrades set an example may have a “viral” effect on those around him in terms of their willingness to get vaccinated. That plus an educational campaign about the vaccine’s safety may be the best the Pentagon can do until the FDA finally issues full approval of the shot, at which point the order to get jabbed can be given.