Top officials make case to military families that the coronavirus vaccine is safe

WASHINGTON — Senior U.S. officials took their case for the need to receive the coronavirus vaccine directly to military families on Thursday, describing the pandemic as an issue of national security.

The officials appeared during an online town hall conference co-hosted by the military nonprofit Blue Star Families and the American Red Cross, with messages from first lady Jill Biden, infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci, Army Gen. Mark Milley and other senior leaders.

Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared alongside his wife, Hollyanne, a nurse, in a recorded message encouraging military families to consult with their doctors as they consider whether to take part in what has so far been a voluntary vaccination program.

“Getting the vaccine is a personal decision, so we both encourage you to consult your primary care physician to address any concerns about being vaccinated,” Milley said.

The pitch came as the Navy announced that a sailor died Thursday of complications from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. The sailor, who was not identified, was assigned to the submarine USS Tennessee in Kings Bay, Ga., and admitted to the hospital at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida on Jan. 30.

The effort also occurred as the Pentagon on Thursday released strict new requirements to wear masks on military installations, including in shared outdoor spaces. The only exceptions are when an individual is alone in an office with full walls and a closed door, for brief periods of time to eat or drink, when it must be pulled down for identification purposes, and when necessary to accommodate someone with a disability.

“As we have done throughout our history, the military will rise to this challenge,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a memo to Defense Department personnel. “It is imperative that we do all we can to ensure the health and safety of our force, our families, and our communities so we can prevail in this fight.”

The senior officials who addressed vaccinations spoke during an event in which Blue Star Families said a survey of dozens of U.S. troops and hundreds of military spouses found that less than half of them are inclined to receive the vaccine.

Few U.S. service members, who are healthier and younger on average than the overall U.S. population, have died of COVID-19. But the virus has complicated military operations with quarantines, travel restrictions and outbreaks that have sidelined units.

U.S. troops are required to receive many other vaccines but have not been required to receive the coronavirus one because it is being administered under an emergency authorization.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, a doctor on Milley’s staff, said last week that the Defense Department has now vaccinated “almost everyone who requested vaccines in our first group” of personnel, which included service members working on the front lines of the pandemic, military police, emergency responders, and those caring for people with the coronavirus.

The second group of Defense Department personnel to be vaccinated includes those over 75 years old, personnel who are preparing to deploy outside the United States, those in strategic positions, and teachers and others working with children.

“That group will then be followed by those who are over the age of 65, as well as younger personnel who have significant risk factors, and we’ll continue to work through the DoD extended family until everyone who desires to have a vaccine has been able to receive it,” Friedrichs said. “I want to be clear that as you’ve seen across the country, and as many leaders have said, this is going to be months, this is not weeks.”

As of Jan. 28, 366,000 doses of the vaccine had been administered to Defense Department employees, Friedrichs said.

Fauci acknowledged skepticism about the vaccine’s safety because it was developed in less than a year but said that speed was possible because of extraordinary efforts in science.

“There were no corners cut,” he said during the video conference. “We did not sacrifice safety, nor did we sacrifice scientific integrity.”

Fauci said that it is not clear whether the coronavirus vaccine will be required annually, and that the scientists do not yet know its “durability.”

About 40% of U.S. troops surveyed are planning to receive the vaccine, 49% are not, and 11% are undecided, Blue Star Families said. About 32% of military spouses said they were planning to receive it, while 54% were against doing so and 14% were undecided.

About 58% of the general population would agree to take a coronavirus vaccine, according to a recent Gallup poll.

The first lady, speaking in a recorded message, said that military families have shouldered the brunt of the pandemic through deployments, often far from their own loved ones.

“Making sure that you have what you need to thrive isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s a matter of national security,” she said. “And that’s especially true as we tackled this virus. You need to feel confident in the health decisions that you make for your family.”

She added that “brighter days are ahead” and asked for help by wearing masks, maintaining social distance and getting the vaccine “when it’s your turn.”

“We can beat this together,” she concluded.

Blue Star Families said that 71% of its survey respondents who are not planning to seek vaccination distrust the vaccine’s development process or timeline. About 70% have concerns about vaccine safety.

About 58% of respondents said they prefer to wait to see if additional side effects arise in other people who take the vaccine before taking it themselves.

“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 Blue Star Families, according to a fact sheet the nonprofit released. “I want to know the side effects and what can happen in 20 years.”