Pentagon insists vaccine rollout a success despite spotty data

The Pentagon is touting its rollout of coronavirus vaccines even as it is unable to say how many service members have actually received COVID-19 vaccinations. 

Defense Department (DOD) officials say they have delivered more than 2 million shots, but a lack of hard numbers has made it difficult to determine how many of those have gone into the arms of troops versus military families and civilian employees.

The uncertainty was apparent on Friday when the Navy’s 7th Fleet claimed 96 percent of its personnel were fully vaccinated, only to pull back that assertion after it appeared it had overstated the results. 

And on Saturday, reports emerged that nearly 40 percent of active duty and reserve Marines declined the vaccine.

The ambivalence lies in the Pentagon’s policy to not track how many military members reject the vaccine. But even without the hard data, officials are insistent that more soldiers, sailors and airmen are taking the inoculation.

“Regarding declinations, that is something that is always a little bit challenging to track,” admitted Air Force Deputy Surgeon General Maj. Gen. Robert Miller.

But there has been an overall trend of “more people accepting the vaccine” due to efforts to educate service members on the benefits of the shot, Miller added.

Maj. Gen. Jill Faris of U.S. Army Medical Command, who spoke alongside Miller, backed up that assertion, saying officials have witnessed “an overall trend in a positive way with more people accepting the vaccine.” 

“As the vaccines have been around, as people have been getting vaccinated, we’re seeing an increase of the take of the vaccine. … We believe that that’s due in large part to the education and the materials we put out,” she said.

But she also allowed that DOD does “not keep track of declinations.” 

About 42 percent of the U.S. general population 18 years old and older have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, with 24 percent fully vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But among the military’s population, that information for months has remained hazy due to a Trump administration policy to not reveal any information other than the top-line numbers of vaccines delivered, the same numbers sent to the CDC. The Biden administration hasn’t publicly discussed changing that policy.

Making the information all the more inscrutable is vaccination rates that differ from service to service.

About 35 percent of the Navy and Marine Corps active duty force has been vaccinated, with the distribution of around 650,000 doses, according to the Navy’s Deputy Surgeon General Rear Adm. Gayle Shaffer.

Breaking it down further, about 75,500 Marines have received the vaccine and 48,000 have declined it, with an overall acceptance rate in the service of 61.1 percent, according to the data obtained by CNN. 

In the Air Force, only 11 percent of airmen have received at least one dose of the vaccine and about 7 percent are fully vaccinated, with 499,000 shots total sent out. 

The Army, meanwhile, has given 688,000 shots so far, with about 461,000 receiving both doses, but that number includes troops as well as their family members and Army civilians or contractors. 

“It took us 70 days to administer the first million vaccines, 35 days for the next million, and with more than a quarter of a million doses administered in the last eight days we’re on track for the next million in somewhere between 25 and 30 [days],” Defense Health Agency Director Lt. Gen. Ronald Place said Thursday.

What’s more, the military cannot require that service members get vaccinated, as the Food and Drug Administration has only given coronavirus vaccines emergency use authorization. 

That voluntary status goes for all service members whether they are soon to deploy or remaining stationary.

“It is a voluntary vaccination,” Faris said. “However, prior to deploying we provide the opportunity for all individuals to have access to be able to be vaccinated. It is not a mandatory requirement for readiness.”

Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro, the Joint Staff vice director for operations, first told lawmakers in February that a third of service members had decided not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine when offered.

Since then, the Pentagon has amped up its messaging to troops with the goal of coaxing more into getting the shot.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin released a video promoting the safety of the coronavirus vaccine and encouraging military personnel to seek out credible information on the inoculation from agencies like the CDC. And multiple high-ranking officials including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley have publicly received the vaccine.  

Officials have also insisted that figures aren’t certain as the Pentagon does not gather data on how many of those offered the vaccine have turned it down.

“We don’t have a system in place across the services to specifically track data for those individuals who for whatever reason are declining or deferring the vaccine,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters in February. 

The Pentagon expects to open up vaccine eligibility to all service members, their families and DOD civilians over the age of 16 on April 19, with every volunteer fully vaccinated by summer.

Tags COVID-19 vaccine Lloyd Austin Mark Milley Military Vaccination Vaccine hesitancy

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