I can be a snarky smart-aleck who criticizes the military on just about everything – who, Moi? – but there is one thing that the Pentagon and I can agree on: Get vaccinated for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
As many as half the troops at certain military bases and units are opting out of getting vaccinated, CNN’s Oren Liebermann and Ellie Kaufman first revealed.
Earlier this month, Geoff Ziezulewicz of Military Times reported on the reasons that some service members have given for not getting inoculated. Some troops are afraid that the vaccines were developed so quickly that they may not be safe. Others are not that concerned about getting COVID-19. One noncommissioned officer cited the military’s past chemical warfare experiments on troops, saying he and his co-workers “do not want to be guinea pigs.”
Defense officials insisted during a Friday news briefing that an increasing number of service members who initially opted out of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine are now deciding to get vaccinated – but they had no data to share to back up that claim. The Defense Department is also not considering offering incentives to troops to get vaccinated, they said.
So far, more than 600,000 active-duty, National Guard, and reserve service members – or roughly 30% of the total force – have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, Army Lt. Gen. Ronald J. Place, director, Defense Health Agency, said at Friday’s briefing.
The number of service members who are refusing to get vaccinated has not been publicly released because defense officials have repeatedly claimed they have no central way to track who is saying no to the shots, even though the military services are tracking which service members are getting inoculated.
But seven Democratic lawmakers were concerned enough to urge President Joe Biden to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for all troops, CNN reported.
“It’s deeply concerning that there are significant numbers of service members refusing the COVID-19 vaccine,” said Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.), who is one of the lawmakers who signed a letter to Biden on this issue. “Such refusal puts their own health and, worse, the health of their fellow service members and our military readiness, at risk.”
Now I’m going to do something I loathe: interject myself in the story. As I’ve mentioned before, I realize that no one cares what I think, and I respect that. But this issue is of such grave importance that I have to argue that the benefits of getting vaccinated for COVID-19 outweigh the risks.
One concern that appears to be prevalent among service members who are hesitant to get inoculated is that the vaccines were approved for emergency use too quickly.
However, researchers had a head start in developing a vaccine because COVID-19 is similar to other viruses that have been around for years, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), according to Houston Methodist, a medical center in Texas.
“Given the genetic similarity between SARS and the new coronavirus, experts basically had a vaccine target cheat sheet — and manufacturers got to work immediately,” Dr. H. Dirk Sostman, executive vice president and chief academic officer of Houston Methodist, said in December.
Other service members may not want to get vaccinated because they are pregnant or plan to have children in the future, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no evidence that COVID-19 vaccines cause problems with pregnancy or affect fertility.
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that an unspoken reason why service members may be hesitant to get vaccinated is that they don’t trust their leadership’s claims that the COVID-19 vaccines won’t hurt them.
And to that point: troops have been exposed to toxic substances throughout history, such as the massive burn pits at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s also true that the service members who were exposed to burning oil fields and nerve gas during the Persian Gulf War suffered from cancer at higher rates than other veterans.
The military also used to give troops Mefloquine to protect them from Malaria when they deployed, but starting in 2002 concerns were raised about the drug following a series of murders at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, that involved soldiers who had taken Mefloquine while deployed to Afghanistan. The Army later determined that it was “unlikely” that the drug was a factor in the murders, but the service did not rule it out entirely.
But in 2013, the military made Mefloquine a drug of last resort in 2013 after the Food and Drug Administration warned that could lead to permanent neurological and psychiatric side effects.
Please hear me out: As a bona fide skeptic of everything the Pentagon says, I am seriously debating whether to drive more than 80 miles to a pharmacy where I might be able to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Diseases are evil. It doesn’t matter how strong you are, no one can tough out a severe illness. Both of my parents died long before their time. I would not wish the agony they went through on my worst enemy.
Last year, COVID-19 roared through the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, showing just how quickly an outbreak can go completely out of control. With new variants of the virus sprouting up across the country, vaccines are key in preventing another nightmarish outbreak.
And look, I get that you may be less likely to trust a member of “the media” than someone on Facebook who claims you can totally “sweat out” COVID-19 by doing CrossFit, but just remember that retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis got vaccinated in January.
Mattis often stressed that success in battle is the result of hard work as well as mental and spiritual toughness. He once told Marines, “By your discipline, cunning, obedience and alertness, you will decide if you are a hunter or a victim.”
If he sees COVID-19 vaccines as useful in the battle to finally kill this miserable virus, that is one hell of an endorsement for getting vaccinated.
So I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: Take the damn vaccine!
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Featured image: An airman fills a syringe with the COVID-19 vaccine at the Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station, Pennsylvania, Feb. 4, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Joshua J. Seybert.)