An airman assembles COVID-19 vaccine syringes.

An airman assembles COVID-19 vaccine syringes. DOD

With Half Its Troops Unvaccinated, Pentagon Aims to Persuade Skeptics

Instead of a “personal health choice,” leaders now call shots a “critical part” of fighting the pandemic.

As roughly half of the active-duty force remains unvaccinated against COVID-19, the Defense Department is pushing harder for troops to accept the effectiveness of the vaccine. 

DOD personnel are reporting lower rates of “breakthrough infection”—individuals who become infected with COVID-19 after a vaccine dose—than the general population, Defense Health Agency director Lt. Gen. Ronald Place told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported a 94 to 95 percent rate of effectiveness for vaccines, Place says their effectiveness among the DOD population is almost 100 percent. 

Of the roughly 1.5 million DOD personnel who have received at least one vaccine dose, only roughly 1,640 have experienced a breakthrough infection. Of those breakthrough infections, 24 resulted in hospitalization and none has been fatal. 

“It’s 99.9 percent effective in the community for us,” Place said. “That’s incredible.”

Now one of DOD’s largest challenges is convincing the other half of the DOD population to get the vaccine. 

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks and Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. John Hyten released a memo Thursday on how to “enable and encourage vaccination.” The memo is a break from DOD’s past messaging, which called getting the vaccine a personal health choice. The new memo says “widespread vaccination” within DOD is a “critical part” of the “nation’s fight against COVID-19.”

DOD’s vaccine operations are now “desire constrained” rather than “supply constrained,” Place said. 

“It’s one of the reasons I'm hitting a little hard on how effective it is in our community,” Place added. “Because I think there’s a lot of people who think it’s not an effective vaccine. This suite of vaccines is incredibly effective.”

The Pentagon has been adamant since vaccine operations began that it does not document or track why individuals turn down the vaccine. But if the reason happens to be hesitancy over the effectiveness, DOD is ready with the numbers to reassure. 

“The three current U.S. Food and Drug Administration-authorized COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective and reduce the risk of hospitalization and death,” the memo from Hicks and Hyten reads.