WASHINGTON — About 33% of service members have declined voluntary coronavirus vaccinations, defense officials said Wednesday, acknowledging that more inoculations would better prepare the military for worldwide missions.
Nearly 150,000 service members are fully vaccinated, a panel of defense officials told lawmakers in a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Pentagon’s coronavirus response. About two-thirds of troops who were offered the vaccine accepted it. There are about 1.3 million active duty troops.
The acceptance rate “mirrors preliminary data that we see in other communities” of Americans, Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, a Joint Chiefs of Staff health official, told lawmakers.
The military is collecting data on race and ethnicity among those who accept the vaccine, Friedrichs said in a discussion about reluctance that some communities have about the vaccine. But the officials acknowledged limitations in what they can do to compel troops to receive vaccinations.
“We need to continue to educate our force and help them understand the benefits [of the vaccine] and ensure leadership is involved,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro, the vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs.
The military has learned to work in places where coronavirus infections are a reality, he said, but “the addition of the vaccine should make us more capable in that environment.”
The military mandates that service members receive vaccinations at enlistment, and often additional inoculations, for typhoid, polio and other diseases, are required before deployments. But the emergency use authorization for the Moderna and Pfizer coronavirus vaccines prevents commanders from requiring their use without FDA approval, Taliaferro said.
Taliaferro said defense officials do not know why some troops turn down opportunities to be vaccinated.
A survey among military families released this month revealed skepticism about the vaccine within the community. About half of U.S. troops did not plan to receive the vaccine, with 11% undecided. Among military spouses, 54% said they would not get the vaccine, the survey by Blue Star Families concluded.
“I’m not sure I want to be a guinea pig, and I really don’t want my kids to be either,” one military spouse told the group. “I want to know the side effects and what can happen in 20 years.”
The Defense Department has prioritized service members and civilian workers, including those working on the front lines of the pandemic, personnel in strategic positions, and teachers and others working with children.
U.S. service members are healthier and younger than the overall U.S. population, though 21 have died of coronavirus infections, according to Pentagon data.
Infection outbreaks have occurred on 200 Navy ships, derailed training exercises and delaying maintenance on vehicle and vessels, said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., a member of the committee.
Rogers expressed concern that FDA approval for the vaccine, which would help the Pentagon mandate the inoculation, might not arrive until 2023.
“I’m not sure we can wait for two years,” he told the defense official panel.
Rep. Mike Green, R-Tenn., a former Army physician, said he was concerned about rewriting the statute that prevents the military from requiring troops to receive treatments not approved by the FDA.
The law was put in place because of the Tuskegee experiments, Green said, a cruel decades-long experiment that began in the 1930s and involved Black men with syphilis. Researchers watched them die untreated and later withheld drugs that could help, such as penicillin.
“We need the full-blown reach done before we saddle our warriors with an experimental medication,” Green said.
— — –
The Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.