Leaders at II Marine Expeditionary Force are dangling a prized incentive to units to encourage COVID-19 vaccinations: a "96," or four-day weekend, if they meet a 65% immunization threshold.
So far, seven of the 80 squadron or battalion-level commands at the Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, command have met the requirement, according to II MEF spokesman 2nd Lt. Jacob Sugg. Roughly 42% of the MEF has received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine "with a steady increase over the past month," he added.
II MEF has faced an uphill battle encouraging members to get the COVID-19 vaccine: In April, the Marine Corps reported that it had the highest rate of vaccine rejection among the three operational forces units -- nearly 60% of 29,300 II MEF Marines who had been offered the vaccine had turned it down.
I MEF, headquartered in California, had a decline rate of 28%, and III MEF, based in Japan, had a rate of roughly 33%, according to the service. News of the 96-hour weekend incentive at II MEF was first reported by Carolina Public Press.
Getting the COVID-19 vaccine is currently optional for service members and Defense Department employees, so military units have worked to encourage troops to get vaccinated, launching educational efforts and providing liberties and incentives to those who are fully vaccinated.
And Fort Bragg, North Carolina, first reopened a dining facility and gymnasium for the fully vaccinated -- defined as two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna mRNA vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, plus a two-week period for maximum immune response.
Now that all facilities at Fort Bragg have reopened, capacity limits remain in place, but those who are fully vaccinated do not have to wear masks indoors -- a policy that follows a Pentagon directive issued in May, said XVIII Airborne Corps spokesman Col. Joe Buccino.
The base is not offering additional incentives to encourage personnel to get vaccinated but is relying on leadership to convey the importance of immunity against the coronavirus.
"For us, this is about readiness, not incentives," Buccino said Friday. "We have a response force mission, so the actual incentive is the nature of our mission. Vaccination ... really allows us to have ready forces available."
Fort Bragg has seen a steady increase in vaccine acceptance, he added, with some units having an 80% vaccination rate. "That's a really high number," he said.
As of Monday, the DoD had administered 3.7 million COVID-19 vaccines to service members, civilian employees, family members and military retirees in its health system.
Nearly 52% of service members across all three components -- active-duty, National Guard and Reserve -- have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 37% are fully vaccinated.
The Army has the most troops who have received at least one dose: 456,156 soldiers across the active duty, National Guard and Reserve. But as the service with the highest number of personnel -- more than a million across all components -- it has the lowest percentage of vaccinated troops, with 45% having received a dose as of Monday and 26% fully vaccinated.
The Navy has the highest vaccination rates, with 69% of the Navy and Navy Reserve having gotten at least one shot and 60% fully vaccinated.
Nearly 48% of Marines have received a vaccine, and 38% are fully vaccinated, according to DoD data.
Military leaders have already said that troops will likely be required to get a COVID-19 vaccine if the Food and Drug Administration approves their use. Pfizer filed for full FDA approval in May for use in those aged 16 and older, while Moderna filed for approval last week for those 18 and up.
Both companies have asked for priority in the application process, which means approval could come within six months.
Buccino said the Army has worked hard to overcome vaccine hesitancy and "debunk" bad information, educating leaders on how to speak with soldiers about their concerns. At Fort Bragg, he produced a podcast with guests that included hesitant personnel and Army Dr. Sammy Choi, a researcher involved in the development of the Pfizer vaccine.
"For us, it's about talking to soldiers about their concerns," Buccino said. "People will listen to reason."
Still, some in the military community, including proponents of vaccine choice for children, say incentives or decisions to allow freedom of movement for the fully vaccinated amount to a form of discrimination against those who elect not to get the vaccine.
An Army spouse who asked that her name not be used out of concern for her family and husband said that since the services are encouraging vaccinations, those who opt out are "being bullied and threatened."
While she did not cite specific examples, she said early restrictions regarding leave and travel on those who declined the vaccine and rewards for those who do get vaccinated are a form of discrimination.
"These policies undermine the right of refusal for an emergency use authorization drug, restricts the freedom of movement of healthy people, and thus creates a culture of coercion in clear violation of medical ethics," she said. "It's already considered bad form and discrimination to single service members out in front of their peers (or in private) for different beliefs or opinions they hold. Why now is it OK to berate and belittle those in front of their peers and raters who are choosing to decline something that is still 100% voluntary?"
Army Staff Sgt. Kiera Holbrook was among those who initially did not want the vaccine, telling Military.com that she was worried it would harm her long-term health or cause infertility.
But after leadership engaged her in discussions over the issue, providing her with the medical research, a list of ingredients and answers to her concerns, she decided to get vaccinated.
"I think soldiers can trust their leadership. That's what happened with me. And I think in our company, more people are getting it because they look around and see that, 'Oh, this person got it, and it's no big deal,'" Holbrook said.
She added that she contracted a severe case of COVID-19 last summer and would rather never have it again.
"It was awful. I was out of work for about three weeks, and because I'm a platoon sergeant, it was not a good look," Holbrook said.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.