More than two-thirds of U.S. service members offered the COVID-19 vaccine have opted to receive it -- but the high rate of troops turning it down has lawmakers voicing grave concerns.
Speaking before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, Defense officials, including Air Force Maj. Gens. Jeff Taliaferro, vice director for operations on the Joint Chiefs, and Steven Nordhaus, director of operations with the National Guard Bureau, said the vaccine acceptance rate for troops is, on average, between 66% and 70%.
Taliaferro added that the rate "varies by different groups," but vaccine refusal has not affected deployability because the military has adapted to working in a pandemic environment.
"The services and the combatant commands have worked very hard over the last year to make sure we can operate in a COVID environment well before the vaccines were available," he said during testimony. "The addition of the vaccine should make us more capable."
According to Taliaferro, the Defense Department has distributed 506,000 shots, including 147,000 second doses to service members.
Taliaferro did not provide reasons why one-third of U.S. service members offered the vaccine -- mainly those in high-risk jobs such as health care, security personnel, those in positions vital to national security and those about to deploy -- declined it.
He added that getting vaccinated "is the right thing to do" and leaders need to be involved in promoting its benefits.
"It's clearly safe for service members, and we need to continue to educate our force and help them understand the benefits," Taliaferro said.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, 150,910 U.S. service members have tested positive for COVID-19; 21 have died.
The National Guard Bureau, which saw members deploy to assist with COVID-19 testing and vaccinations and responded to natural disasters, domestic upheaval and riots in the past year, has had 19,422 cases.
In light of the infections and their impact on training, Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss., a major general in the Army National Guard, said a voluntary vaccination approach "just doesn't make sense if we are saying the vaccine is safe."
He proposed drafting legislation that would allow the vaccine to be mandated while in an emergency use authorization.
"Do you think it would be helpful if we change that in Congress, so that [it] can be -- may be, not shall be -- mandatory to service members?" Kelly asked.
DoD officials said discussions on the proposal would need to be conducted between the Pentagon, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Congress.
They said they would provide Congress with a copy of the legal authority they have interpreted to mean the vaccine must be taken voluntarily while it is being distributed under a Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorization.
Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., a retired Army flight surgeon who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, objected to Kelly's proposal, saying that "full-blown research" needed to be done before "we saddled our warriors with an experimental medication."
"Legislation was passed to prevent the use of any experimental medication on an active-duty soldier. ... I think it's a bad idea to change it," Green said.
Members of Congress also voiced concern over the impact of the pandemic and vaccine hesitancy on readiness, citing nearly year-long reductions or cancellations of training and exercises. Taliaferro said 99 military exercises were canceled because of COVID-19 and 37 were postponed.
"We've seen, obviously, COVID-19 outbreaks disrupt operations, especially Navy deployments," said Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I. "Do service members have the right to refuse to get vaccinated? It obviously impacts readiness."
"How long is it going to take us to make [lost training time] up? And what's the impact on the operations tempo?" Green asked.
Taliaferro said the services would never be able to make up for the loss of large force training exercises but added that readiness has "stayed within historic norms."
"Smaller formations have allowed the services to maintain their basic proficiency and currency and combat readiness," he said.
Defense Department officials have said that the COVID-19 vaccine will remain voluntary while it's under emergency use authorization. That designation is expected to last up to two years while the FDA assesses the vaccination's efficacy and side effects.
Last week, Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, U.S. Second Fleet commander, discussed vaccine acceptance with reporters as the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group geared up for a pre-deployment vaccine clinic. According to Lewis, 80% of the crew voiced intentions to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
He said the service will mandate the vaccine as soon as possible.
“We cannot make it mandatory yet," Lewis said. "I can tell you we're probably going to make it mandatory as soon as we can, just like we do with the flu vaccine."