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Secretary of Defense Addresses Vaccine Hesitancy in Military

Feb. 25, 2021 | BY Jim Garamone , DOD News

After a tour of a mass COVID-19 vaccination site in Los Angeles, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin addressed the hesitancy that some service members have about getting the vaccine.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks to service members outside a building.
Site Visit
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III visits with service members assisting at the Federal Emergency Management Agency COVID-19 vaccination site at California State University Los Angeles, Feb. 24, 2021.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders, DOD
VIRIN: 210224-D-XI929-1011Y

The Food and Drug Administration has given all the vaccines currently being administered emergency use authorization. It is much as it sounds, according to the FDA. In an emergency, the FDA can make a product available to the public based on the best available evidence, without waiting for all the evidence that would be needed for FDA approval or clearance.

COVID-19 has killed more than 500,000 Americans, and the FDA approved the vaccines to help save lives. The vaccines were intensely studied and tested on hundreds of thousands of people. The efficacy of the vaccines against COVID-19 is not in question. 

A soldier wearing a face mask and gloves leans down to give an injection to a man who's wearing a face mask seated in a chair.
Administering Vaccines
Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel, service members assigned to the Defense Department, and New Jersey state troopers provide COVID-19 vaccination support in Somerset, N.J., Feb. 14, 2021. FEMA is working with state, local, tribal and territorial governments on the critical need to open vaccination centers in underserved communities.
Photo By: K.C. Wilsey, Courtesy of FEMA
VIRIN: 210214-O-KW201-702

But there is some hesitancy — especially in communities of color in America — to get the vaccines. "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," Austin said. "It's been my experience that when armed with the facts, people will tend to make the right decisions."

In the past, commanders — on the advice from medical professionals — could simply order service members to get a vaccine. Troops deploying to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan had to receive the anthrax series of shots, for example. That was possible because those were FDA approved inoculations.

The COVID-19 vaccines are not, and the services cannot simply order personnel to get the shots. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and guardians must make the decision for themselves. "These are individual decisions," Austin said. "We want to make sure that they have the best information available to make those decisions."

An airman wearing personal protective equipment holds a syringe while inserting the needle into a small bottle.
Vaccine Prep
Air Force Senior Airman Domingo Rodriguez, an aerospace medical technician with the Puerto Rico Air National Guard, administers COVID-19 vaccines in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Feb. 16, 2021. Airmen are helping to vaccinate residents of Puerto Rico at mass vaccination distribution sites.
Photo By: Air Force Senior Airman Víctor Colón, Puerto Rico Air National Guard
VIRIN: 210217-Z-BT672-0003

Austin wants service members to talk to families, talk to physicians and read about the decision. "We want them to have the facts," he said. He wants service members and their families to read the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and speak to defense health professionals.

"It's really important that … people have the facts, and we found that armed with the facts, they'll make the right decisions typically," he said. "I've taken the vaccine. I consider it to be safe. We've not seen very many side effects that are harmful.

"The greatest incentive to getting vaccinated is that it saves your life, and it saves the life of the folks that mean a lot to you," he continued. "That, in and of itself, is very, very important."