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Facing vaccine skepticism, one corner of the Army is trying something new

A soldier at Fort Bragg administers a coronavirus vaccine shot in February.

MICHAEL NOGGLE/U.S. ARMY

By ALEX HORTON | The Washington Post | Published: March 19, 2021

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In early February, as military officials faced a wave of skepticism among service members about the coronavirus vaccine, leaders at Fort Bragg took a hard look at what soldiers were hearing.

The feedback was concerning. Misinformation on social media fueled doubt about its safety and efficacy, and endorsements from experts were not getting through. By the end of February, fewer than half of the soldiers at Fort Bragg, N.C., said they would get the vaccine, an Army official said. The vaccine is voluntary for troops at the moment.

So officials at the Army's most populated installation developed a solution they say has shown promise: listen to soldiers, walk them through concerns and mint ambassadors out of skeptical soldiers who changed their minds.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has encouraged service members to get vaccinated, joining leaders who point to inoculations as a way to help prepare troops for worldwide missions. The virus has strained global movement, has delayed training with key allies and took an aircraft carrier out of commission for weeks last spring, when a quarter of the roughly 4,900 sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt were infected.

Hesitancy among service members — who have said they fear the vaccine was rushed, believe it has been politicized and worry about long-term effects — in many ways mirrors doubts in the civilian population. About a third of U.S. troops opted out of the vaccine, defense officials testified last month, using preliminary data.

But the approach at Fort Bragg — including a recent podcast that hosted three skeptical soldiers discussing how they went from no to yes on vaccination — could help commanders throughout the Army tailor a plan to meet soldiers where they are as they try to vaccinate more of the force.

The podcast also strays from typical military information sessions of videos and sterile presentations often derided by troops as "death by PowerPoint."

Staff Sgt. Kiera Holbrook, who appeared on the podcast, was at first a hard no. The 29-year-old logistics specialist had concerns the vaccine was developed too fast or could complicate her ability to get pregnant in the future. She opted out of the vaccine earlier this year, then was infected by the virus, she said.

But her attitude changed once her company commander and first sergeant brought in experts to dispel rumors and answer questions. Her position flipped when she learned her superiors were vaccinated.

"Once they got it, it made me feel comfortable," Holbrook told The Washington Post. "It was a sigh of relief."

She received her first dose of the vaccine in late February, she said. Her soldiers followed her along the way, first opting out, then scheduling their own shots when Holbrook received hers.

That process — soldiers with initial skepticism absorbing confidence from superiors who got the vaccine first — has been replicated elsewhere, said Lt. Col. Joe Buccino, a Fort Bragg spokesperson.

Both the soldier testimonials on the podcast, and the chain effect of leaders carving a path to more vaccinations, is at the heart of a realization that many young service members will pay close attention to people in their orbit.

"Soldiers in the barracks aren't listening to Dr. Fauci," Buccino said, referring to Anthony S. Fauci, the country's top infectious-disease expert. "Soldiers in the barracks are listening to soldiers in the barracks."

The most recent vaccine acceptance rate at Fort Bragg is just below 60%, up from less than half last month, according to an Army official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

It is unclear whether newer efforts to encourage vaccinations contributed to increase, but the official cautioned the number is still not satisfactory among senior leaders.

Fort Bragg gathers data on whether soldiers accept the vaccine at the unit level, but some bases don't, the official said. Army officials at the Pentagon don't collect data by installation because the vaccine isn't mandatory, said Maj. Jacqueline Wren, an Army spokesperson.

About 620,000 people within the Defense Department have been fully vaccinated, according to Pentagon data, which includes service members, civilian workers, retirees and family members. The Pentagon did not provide a number of vaccinations for uniformed personnel. Twenty-four troops have died of coronavirus infections, the data shows.

A climbing vaccination rate has implications for the sprawling community at Fort Bragg, an installation of more than 134,000 troops, civilian workers and contractors — more than the population of Topeka, Kan.

While U.S. troops receive a cocktail of vaccines when they enter the service, the emergency use authorization for now prevents the military from mandating coronavirus vaccinations without full Food and Drug Administration approval.

That also gives leaders a unique challenge: Because service members live under a system of orders and face numerous constraints on personal freedom, some soldiers have opted out of the vaccine just to savor a rare personal decision, Buccino said.

Nearly 7 in 10 Americans have either received the vaccine or said they would definitely or probably receive it, the Pew Research Center found in a survey conducted last month. That figure is higher than those in previous months.

Younger people are less likely to have been vaccinated or interested in the vaccine, Pew noted, partly because it has been made available first to older people and those with certain medical conditions.

That service members are younger and healthier than U.S. adults in general may contribute to ideas that they don't need the vaccine, said Y. Sammy Choi, director of the research department at Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg.

"There is a sense of invincibility" among younger troops, he said, and a belief that even if they get infected, they may only have minor symptoms. A toxic stew of misinformation, particularly on Facebook, has spread distortions further. Some soldiers also believe there is little known about how the vaccine actually works.

"Putting it all together, it's a perfect storm of people saying, 'No, I don't want to do it,' " Choi said.

Choi joined the 18th Airborne Corps Podcast in an episode focused on the coronavirus and the vaccines. The segment has been downloaded more than 92,000 times since March 8, Buccino said, about 10 times the number of downloads for other episodes.

The podcast featured two other soldiers who said they waited to see if other soldiers developed side effects. Both agreed to get vaccinated, they said.