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Pentagon Battles Vaccine Hesitancy Among Armed Forces

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

While many members of the armed forces are eligible to get the coronavirus vaccine, less than half of some units have agreed to get it. As Jay Price of member station WUNC reports, the Pentagon is now fighting vaccine hesitancy within its very own ranks.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: The military needs its troops ready to fight, not getting sick, having their training restricted or cycling in and out of quarantines. But instead, it finds itself in...

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE 18TH AIRBORNE CORPS PODCAST")

JOE BUCCINO: The COVID vaccine information war.

J PRICE: That's from a podcast aimed at the soldiers of the 18th Airborne Corps, which comprises nearly a fifth of the Army. Legally, service members can't be ordered to take vaccines that don't have full FDA approval unless the president allows it. So the Pentagon has to persuade them.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE 18TH AIRBORNE CORPS PODCAST")

BUCCINO: It's one of the most important Army efforts of the moment, perhaps the most important.

J PRICE: Military leaders are trying hard to get the attention of troops like Private First Class Rodolfo Amaya. One day recently, he got in line to get vaccinated inside a Fort Bragg recreation center but only after overcoming his reluctance, reluctance based on one of the most common reasons troops cite.

RODOLFO AMAYA: It's a new vaccine. No one knows how really it's going to affect us in a later future.

J PRICE: Just ahead of him in line was Specialist Emily Gaiser, who had been hesitant for the same reason. She said some of her female friends are still saying no.

EMILY GAISER: Most of the people who were not getting it right now are the ones who are having kids right now. They're kind of nervous about - for the fact that they have newborns in their house, and they don't want to risk anything at the moment.

J PRICE: The CDC says the vaccines are not likely to pose a risk for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Bragg officials say the percentage of soldiers agreeing to get vaccinated is under 50% for the base. It's especially low among younger soldiers who are getting much of their inaccurate information from social media. So the army has begun treating that misinformation and disinformation as a battlefield foe. Lieutenant Colonel Owen Price is the adviser on COVID to the 18th Airborne Corps.

OWEN PRICE: We're constantly trying to work out what, you know, the myth of the day is. And then we research that. We find the facts behind it.

J PRICE: And then it pushes out those facts to the troops. The 18th Airborne Corps has started an aggressive social media campaign. It's also having success using medics to talk with soldiers and their units one on one as peers who also happen to have medical expertise. One common reason for not getting vaccinated can't be blamed on the Internet. Some troops are saying no simply because they can.

O PRICE: Choice is a fairly rare commodity in their lives. They get told when to eat, what to wear, where they can go, what they can and can't do so much that when they are given a choice to do something, then some percentage of the population will say no just because they have that choice.

J PRICE: Price and his counterparts across the Army share information about successful tactics. He says in recent weeks that Bragg has seen at least modest gains in the number willing to get vaccinated, probably in part because of all the education efforts and also from a kind of snowball effect.

O PRICE: I think a lot of it is seeing the more people that get vaccinated and that they see that they did not have any ill effects, to me, that's been huge.

J PRICE: That's why Pfc Amaya and Specialist Gaiser were in that line waiting for a shot of Pfizer vaccine.

AMAYA: Other soldiers took the shot and they said, you know, they felt fine afterwards. Like, they said it was for the better. So they said, just go ahead and get the shot. So that was pretty much my influence for me getting it.

J PRICE: Specialist Gaiser was likewise influenced by seeing other soldiers get the vaccine and someone else, too.

GAISER: I'm getting it because my grandma is getting it and I kind of want to be able to see her later on. I haven't seen her in over a year. And it is kind of nerve-wracking to get it, but if my grandma can get it, so can I.

J PRICE: Now the military just has to convince more troops to be like Gaiser's grandmother. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price at Fort Bragg, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.