The director of the Defense Health Agency acknowledged that many American troops have refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine but said Friday that the bigger problem is a lack of supply.

Lt. Gen. Ron Place was commenting on Defense Department data showing that as many as a third of service members and their families did not get the vaccine when offered, with some expressing concerns about whether it’s safe.

“Progress has been steady, and we’ve had challenges, including winter storms which in some cases has limited our movement of vaccine from the manufacturers,” Place said Friday in a teleconference with reporters during a visit to Hawaii.

The Director of the Defense Health Agency, Lt. Gen. Ronald Place meets with Tripler's staff at Tripler Army Medical Center, in Hawaii.
The Director of the Defense Health Agency Lt. Gen. Ronald Place (right) toured military medical centers in Hawaii this week. Tripler Army Medical Center

However, Place said that skepticism hasn’t impeded the actual pace of vaccination because the remaining two thirds of troops that want it outnumber the actual vaccine supply. “There’s way more people who are interested in getting vaccinated than the supplies that we have,” he added.

The DHA is responsible for overseeing the distribution and administration of the COVID-19 vaccines to the approximately 11 million military service members, dependents, civilian employees and other beneficiaries.

The Food and Drug Administration has given the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines that are currently being administered emergency use authorization, which means they may be used based on what it considers satisfactory safety data without waiting for all the evidence that would normally be required for full approval.

While the military makes most vaccines mandatory, the COVID-19 vaccines remain voluntary for service members while they are still under emergency authorization.

Place said that he and other leaders have been talking to troops who have passed on taking the vaccine to find out why, and found a variety of answers. “We should be careful about saying why it is that people may not want to be vaccinated right now,” he said.

The reasons included a belief that the vaccines should be given to people with a higher risk of complications. Active duty troops tend to be young, fit and in good health compared to the rest of the population and are considered lower risk.

“Progress has been steady, and we’ve had challenges, including winter storms.” — Lt. Gen. Ron Place

Others told him they want to see how the vaccine goes for others before taking it themselves amid concerns about side effects. Place said he’s hesitant to judge them for wanting to wait, even with the testing the vaccines have gone through.

“The short term safety profile is exceptional. But nobody, and I mean nobody, knows the long term safety,” Place said. “So for someone who is young and healthy and doesn’t have the long term information that maybe they may want to know, it’s a rational question that they have.”

However, Place stressed that he believes the vaccines are safe, and that people who have contracted the virus have suffered long-term effects that could last a lifetime.

Service members aren’t alone in their hesitation. The percentage of those who have decided not to receive a vaccine mirrors the acceptance rate across the United States, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby was quoted as saying by CNN last week.

A November Survey by the University of Hawaii’s Public Policy Center found that only 44% of Hawaii residents intended to take the vaccine when it became available.

Communities of color are particularly cautious in light of past unethical medical tests — such as the Tuskegee Experiment — that exposed minorities to either unsafe or ineffective medicine without giving them all the information.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the first Black man to hold his position, tried to assuage those fears Thursday during a visit to a mass vaccination in Los Angeles.

“Because of some things that have happened in the past, there’s a degree of mistrust, and I think we have to collectively work hard to dispel rumors and to provide facts to people,” Austin said. “It’s been my experience that when armed with the facts, people will tend to make the right decisions.”

Military officials have refused to publicly state how many vaccines have been administered in Hawaii, or discuss infection rates at bases in the islands.

Local commanders initially gave public updates on infections, but stopped after the administration of former President Donald Trump ordered them to keep those numbers secret — though they share them with state officials who include them in the state’s total infection numbers.

Ultimately Place said he was confident more troops would take the vaccine as they see it is safe.

The test may come soon. Place said that within the next month he expects vaccines to become much more widely available to service members. “Based on the expectations that we are receiving from the manufacturers it no longer will be a supply constrained environment,” he said.

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