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A Navy corpsman administers a COVID-19 vaccine at Naval Station Norfolk, Va., on April 8, 2021.
A Navy corpsman administers a COVID-19 vaccine at Naval Station Norfolk, Va., on April 8, 2021. ( Jackson Adkins/U.S. Navy)

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WASHINGTON — Tens of thousands fewer veterans are seeking coronavirus vaccines from the Department of Veterans Affairs compared to just two weeks ago, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Monday.

Earlier this month, between 50,000 to 75,000 veterans were getting vaccinated every day. As of Friday, distribution dropped to between 25,000 to 30,0000 vaccinations per day, McDonough said. The drop in demand, which is reflective of the rest of the U.S. population, has prompted the department to increase its communication to veterans about the importance of getting vaccinated.

“We are seeing demand lag,” McDonough said during a news briefing. “It underscores the importance of us continuing to make the case for vaccination.”

As of last week, more than half of adults in the United States had received at least one vaccine dose, and President Joe Biden touted reaching the goal of 200 million shots administered during his first 100 days in office.

However, Biden’s administration now faces the challenge of combating vaccine hesitancy. The average daily number of vaccinations fell last week to below 3 million, down from a high of 3.4 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 9 million veterans are enrolled in VA health care. As of Monday, the VA had fully vaccinated more than 2.5 million people. Black veterans are getting vaccinated at the highest rates, with 40% vaccinated so far, followed by 38% of Asian veterans, 36% of Native Hawaiian veterans, 36% of Hispanic veterans, 35% of white veterans and 26% of American Indian veterans.

Similar to the rest of the U.S. population, the VA is seeing the most hesitancy toward the vaccine among veterans who live in rural areas.

The department has vaccinated 39% of veterans living in urban areas, compared to 30% in rural places and 27% in highly rural places. A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on national health issues, found three in 10 residents in rural America said they will definitely not receive a vaccine or will do so only if required.

McDonough said the VA is trying to connect veterans with their doctors so they can ask questions and address concerns.

“In more rural areas, we do see increased hesitancy,” he said. “So our answer to that has been to increase engagement with clinicians. Generally speaking, that’s helping.”

Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the leaders of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, put out a public service announcement Thursday encouraging veterans to get vaccinated. Both senators represent rural states where there have been hesitancy issues.

“Answer the call, armor up with the Covid-19 vaccine, and help protect and defend your family, your friends and our nation,” Moran said in the video.

It remains uncertain how the pause in distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine might affect hesitancy. U.S. health officials paused the country’s use of the J&J vaccine for 11 days to address concerns about six cases of severe blood clots. On Saturday, the Federal Drug Administration lifted the pause, saying the blood clots were “very rare events” and the benefits of the vaccine outweighed the risks.

Dr. Kameron Matthews, an assistant under secretary for health at the VA, is optimistic the pause eased peoples’ worries about the vaccines, rather than the opposite.

“It actually confirms for a lot of people that this process does look at safety and take safety into account,” he said. “There were initial concerns about hesitancy, but the fact that it’s been such a transparent process has helped.”

The VA released a statement Monday that it would resume using the J&J vaccines. Veterans who are offered J&J vaccines will receive information about the potential risks and benefits and will be made aware of the other vaccine options, the statement said.

As of Monday, the VA had administered 2.7 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, followed by 2.4 million doses of the vaccine developed by Moderna. It had given only 113,619 shots of the J&J vaccine.

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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