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Episode 9: Service members vs. the vaccine

By BRIAN MCELHINEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 2, 2021

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All Department of Defense personnel and beneficiaries have been eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine as of April 19, but many service members have declined to take it.

The reasons why vary. Some are skeptical of the vaccine, looking back at the U.S. government’s response to Agent Orange or past vaccines such as the anthrax vaccine. Others see vaccination — and the coronavirus pandemic as a whole — as a political issue. And because the DOD has not mandated the vaccine, some are exercising their right to refuse it.

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This week’s Military Matters investigates why service members aren’t taking the vaccine, with guests Dr. Kamal Kalsi, an ER doctor and lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve; Defense One reporter Elizabeth Howe; and Dr. Asha George from the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense.

“I've talked to a lot of soldiers and some of them feel that, perhaps the vaccine's been rushed and that they don't, you know, that they have a choice,” Kalsi said. “… And I can understand that; I can see where they're coming from. But a lot of the other vaccines that we were given over the years had way less data behind them.”

Kalsi, who predicted the rise of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. on an earlier episode of Military Matters, said that while some may think the pandemic is winding down, it is far from over.

“If you remember back to the horrible 1918 flu, that took many years to overcome and granted, we didn't have all this great technology that we do today, but it still took many, many years to get over that,” Kalsi said. “And I think what's happening right now is yeah, the initial strain of COVID that we had, yeah, sure, we will have overcome that. But these additional strains that have now manifested, it is going to be many years before we overcome all of those.”

In her interview with co-host Jack Murphy, Howe brought up the question of how the vaccine — or service members refusing to take the vaccine — could affect military readiness.

“Even if you’re about to deploy, you are still not required to get the COVID-19 vaccine,” Howe said. “So what the DOD will do as far as trying to get more of its force vaccinated, it’s kind of unclear. And it’s also unclear if they want to push that vaccine. There’s still a little bit of dispute, like we’ve seen with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, of, if these vaccines aren’t completely safe, should they be pushed on people?”

George, who is director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, talked about how politicization of the pandemic and the vaccine has hindered the ability to get a handle on COVID-19 and other biological threats.

“I don't think we are in a place right now to say we're completely and totally ready for the next thing that comes around,” George said. “We're not even ready for the mutations that are occurring with this disease, that everybody is paying so much attention to, but I really do believe that we could be ready. And it's just a matter of taking those recommendations that have already been made.”

Follow Jack Murphy on Twitter @jackmurphyrgr and Rod Rodriguez @rodpodrod.

A transcript of the episode can be found here.

You can find Military Matters on Twitter @stripesmmpod.

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Episode 9: Service members vs. the vaccine