As many military personnel receive the coronavirus vaccine, 1 in 3 decide to opt out

William Cole, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
·4 min read

Feb. 23—The Defense Department has initiated larger-scale COVID-19 vaccinations on Oahu as it struggles with an overall 1-in-3 refusal rate in the ranks to take the vaccine.

Tripler Army Medical Center posted a video to its Facebook page last week with an infectious disease physician offering information on the vaccine and its effects so that military personnel "can make an informed decision that is in your best interest."

"While the medical community recommends vaccination, we understand it remains a personal choice, " said Dr. Jennifer Masel, an Army major based at Tripler.

Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro, vice director for operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday at a House Armed Services Committee hearing that early data points to vaccine acceptance rates for serv ­ice members "somewhere in the two-thirds territory."

Military members are not required to get COVID-19 shots because Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were approved under "emergency use authorizations " and not after full study.

A public relations campaign continues to try to get as many military members as possible to take the vaccine, with the vast majority willingly do so.

Members of the approximately 900-strong 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines from Marine Corps Base Hawaii received vaccinations Thursday in a classroom at Kaneohe Bay.

Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam's 15th Medical Group hosted its first COVID-19 mass vaccination Feb. 9. In mid-January it was the turn of the 3rd infantry Brigade Combat Team at Schofield Barracks, which has several thousand soldiers, to get vaccinated.

Officials said at last week's congressional hearing that 916, 575 vaccine doses had been administered to Defense Department personnel, with 359, 000 service members receiving initial shots and 147, 000 fully vaccinated after two shots.

The 916, 575 number was pegged at about 20 % of the number of personnel the Pentagon is trying to inoculate, including groups like civilians and contractors. Robert Salesses, performing the duties of assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, said it will probably be in the late July and August time frame "to have everybody vaccinated."

Lisa Lawrence, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said that only Defense Department-wide vaccination numbers, and not state breakdowns, are provided. The U.S. military also has refused to reveal its COVID-19 cases by state.

Tripler has been administering vaccine since mid-December. Military clinics around Oahu have done so, also.

"Luckily, Tripler's vaccine supply has yet to be impacted by the weather events on the mainland. Our vaccine supply line has been sufficient to keep us on schedule, " said spokeswoman Mackenzie Walsh.

Walsh said she could not speak to what other branches are doing, but the Army moved into the "1-C " category last week at Tripler and at Desmond T. Doss Health Clinic at Schofield Barracks. Those facilities "are actively vaccinating their 65 + beneficiaries and high-risk beneficiaries, ages 16-64, " she said.

The "1-B " group includes strategic and homeland defense forces and those preparing to deploy, among others.

Masel, the Army doctor, said on the Facebook video that "there are some myths about how the vaccine works inside the body, " with some worried it can alter DNA.

"This is not true, " she said. The messenger RNA from the vaccine can't get into the nucleus of the cell and therefore does not interact with DNA at all, Masel said.

"Another concern about the vaccine is that it can cause infertility, " she said. "There is no evidence that this is the case, " with reproductive medicine specialists recommending women of child-bearing age get vaccinated.

Masel also said "you cannot catch COVID from the vaccine, but it can produce symptoms that are expected for this type of vaccine, " including fatigue, fever and body aches caused by the immune system responding to the vaccine that go away after a day or two.

Symptoms seem to be more pronounced after the second dose, she noted. While the Pfizer vaccine has been shown to be 94.6 % effective in the prevention of COVID-19, it still remains unclear how long the immunity will last, Masel said.

"Ultimately, the choice is yours, " she said. "As you make your decision we recommend you weigh the benefits and risks. While you may be at a lower risk of severe COVID-19 complications, consider that even previously healthy people have developed lasting problems as a result of COVID-19."

Masel said that decision should also consider "how participating in the vaccination can reduce the demand on medical facilities and potentially save lives."