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One-third of military service members have opted not to receive COVID-19 vaccinations

One-third of US military service members eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccination have opted not to, defense officials said Monday as they announced the Department of Defense is nearing 1 million vaccinations delivered.

Cautioning that it’s still “very early data,” Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday, “The vaccine is the right thing to do, it’s clearly safe for service members.”

The percentage of those who have decided not to receive a vaccine mirrors the acceptance rate across the United States, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday. The one-third estimate is the first time that the department has said publicly how many service members have declined to be vaccinated.

The Department of Defense has administered 916,575 vaccine doses, Kirby said, amounting to nearly 90% of its doses. The department is expected to cross the mark of 1 million doses administered by the end of the week, he added.

The military cannot make vaccinations mandatory for troops because it has received only an emergency use and not a full authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, said Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon.

“There’s a real limit legally that we have to make it mandatory for our troops and our families,” Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon. “That’s why it’s a voluntary basis right now.”

The Department of Defense does not have vaccine opt-out numbers for each service or vaccine refusal data broken down by demographics, Kirby said. “We don’t have a system in place across each of the services to specifically track data with respect to those who, for whatever reason, are declining or deferring the vaccine.”

Friedrichs told the House Armed Service Committee that the military collects relevant data on those who receive a vaccine. “We are collecting that data on acceptance rates,” Friedrichs said, which includes data on race and ethnicity. “Our experience mirrors the preliminary data that we’re seeing in other communities. We are actually digging into that and continuing to collect more data as we administer more vaccines.”

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has received both vaccine doses. Kirby said people choosing not to be vaccinated is a “concern” of the secretary’s, but he understands it’s a personal decision.

“Certainly, it’s a concern of the Secretary, but he’s also mindful that it’s a voluntary program,” Kirby said during a press briefing last week. “While he has taken the vaccine because he believes it was the right thing to do for him and for his health and for his family and his ability to do the job, he recognizes that this is a personal decision that everybody has to make.”

The Defense Department is encouraging members who are concerned about being vaccinated to read information available on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Defense websites and consult their doctors if they have any questions, Kirby said.

“We need to continue to educate our force and help them understand the benefits and ensure there’s leadership involvement in the discussion of the benefits of the vaccine,” Taliaferro said during the House Armed Services hearing.

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