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When Camp Lejeune posted a video with facts about the COVID-19 vaccine from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to its Facebook page in early January, the comments quickly gave way to vaccine deniers and conspiracy theorists.
“It is a set up,” one commenter wrote. Another posted a video — which has been removed — reportedly laden with false claims about the virus, including that the vaccine causes infertility and embeds a tracking device.
Another commenter, responding to a woman who wrote that her family would forgo the vaccine, commended her: “Your selfless sacrifice in passing your dose on to some human that actually deserves it is exemplary. Thank you.”
Fort Bragg uses its Facebook page, like other military bases and commands all over the country, to share all sorts of information, from vaccine clinics to weather updates and gate closures. Updates to its page about the COVID19 vaccine have been met with similar responses.
While arguing on social media is hardly a new phenomenon, a little more than a week after military leaders told Congress that as many as a third of troops are declining or putting off COVID19 vaccinations, in part because of misinformation about it, military officials in North Carolina say they are using all of the limited supply that they can get while simultaneously waging campaigns to combat rumors.
“It is a challenge to combat misinformation that Marines are seeing on social media,” Lt. Col. Thomas B. Turner, who is leading vaccination planning for active-duty personnel at Camp Lejeune, told Carolina Public Press.
“But that is one of our principal lines of effort here. We have to inoculate the force from the virus, and we have to inoculate the force for vaccine misinformation.”
Civilian health officials in the state have described a similar fight, but for military personnel, who often live, train and deploy together, the vaccine has taken on additional urgency. Because the vaccines are currently authorized for emergency use by the federal government, they are not mandated for troops.
“We just have a lot of people that are waiting and seeing,” Turner said.
“We rarely give Marines the opportunity to make their own decisions in the Marine Corps. It’s a choice. Many of them are saying no. There’s nothing wrong with that. We just want to educate the Marines that it’s essential that they think about protecting not just themselves, but their units, because they’re often in close proximity with one another.”
Supply and demand challenges
Like counties across the state, military bases learn about a week ahead of time how many doses of the vaccine they will get. In addition to active-duty personnel, the bases separately offer vaccinations to qualified beneficiaries and other personnel, including front-line and health care workers.
The Department of Defense has given out more than 880,000 doses of the vaccine, including more than 626,000 second doses, according to the CDC. That number includes active-duty, eligible beneficiaries and civilian personnel, a Pentagon spokesman said in an email.
Earlier this week U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III released a video encouraging troops to get vaccinated.
But that remains a challenge for base officials. At Fort Bragg, which is currently in 1C status, more than 30,000 vaccinations have been given, a total that also includes beneficiaries and essential workers, base spokesperson Col. Joe Buccino said.
Active-duty personnel are vaccinated separately on base at times specifically scheduled for their units. So far, about half of the troops offered the vaccine have opted out.
“We wish our opt-in rate was higher,” Buccino said. “We do. For us, it’s just about informing — you know, informing our force, informing our troops.”
The base has a daily staff meeting, led by a two-star general, to discuss vaccine efforts, and Army medics and physicians at the unit level talk with soldiers about it, Buccino said.
The base also uses its social media to disseminate vaccine information, including posting virtual town halls. As for false claims posted to the base’s Facebook page, Buccino said in a text message that removing them could lead to more problems.
“We leave the false claims, as removing them would lead to claims of censorship,” Buccino wrote.
Camp Lejeune is home to the II Marine Expeditionary Force, composed of about 40,000 Marines and sailors. The Jacksonville base is currently in phase 1B, which prioritizes the vaccine for active-duty personnel who are deploying or traveling for training overseas.
Turner said daily walk-ins are also allowed to prevent wasting doses. The base is also separately offering the vaccine to qualified beneficiaries and front-line workers through Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune.
Camp Lejeune officials said they’ve been able to offer about 30% of sailors and Marines with the II MEF the vaccine since it arrived at the base in January, and between 70% and 75% have accepted.
That also included about 92% of personnel from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit who left earlier this month for pre-deployment exercises as part of the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Unit, Turner said.
Military officials said they hope for more buy-in among troops over time as they see their comrades receive it. Officials at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro echoed that sentiment.
Base officials declined to discuss how many vaccines had been distributed among its force of nearly 6,000 active-duty and civilian personnel, but Maj. Lacie Collins, a spokesperson for the 4th Fighter Wing, said in an email that “a very small percentage” had declined it. The base is using Facebook to promote vaccination.
“I think there’s some notion, you know, if you’re a young soldier, you’re physically fit,” Buccino said.
“There’s a notion that this is similar to the flu. For a lot of people, it is, but there are risks associated with contracting COVID that you don’t absorb, you don’t assume with the flu. Ultimately, you’re of course better off getting vaccinated. Any risk with the vaccination is minimal. Millions of people in the United States have been vaccinated without a problem. Many healthy young people have had very serious problems with COVID.”
Opportunities for veterans
While active-duty service members currently have the option to forgo the vaccine, veterans eligible for care through the Veterans Health Administration have an extra avenue through which to seek out the inoculation.
According to data released daily by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, at least 44,000 initial vaccines had been given to veterans across the state by the VA as of Feb. 24. More than 17,000 had completed both rounds since the vaccines became available about two months ago through state VA health care centers.
More than 332,400 veterans used a North Carolina-based VA health care center at least once in 2020, according to data provided by Veterans Integrated Service Network 6, which includes North Carolina and Virginia, though that number doesn’t likely capture the entire population of former service members.
The state’s four VA hospitals, in Asheville, Fayetteville, Durham and Salisbury, operate regionally, and each oversees a number of community clinics, which also offer the vaccine.
Seniors and others in the state have reported difficulties in scheduling appointments for the vaccination while demand continues to outstrip supply, and VA officials said they, too, are at the mercy of the federal government.
“Our infrastructure that we’ve built can handle more vaccine,” said VISN 6 pharmacy executive Dr. Brett Norem, who is leading the VA region’s COVID-19 vaccination effort.
The region’s VA health care centers allow veterans who are enrolled for care and who are eligible for the shot to schedule vaccination appointments, and staff members use tools to identify and reach out directly, through letters, phone calls and text messages, to fill appointments as more shipments arrive.
VISN 6 spokesperson Tara Ricks-Edger recommended that veterans speak to their primary care doctor or monitor their VA system’s website and social media for phase and vaccine availability. The Asheville VA system is currently at phase level 1B, while Durham, Fayetteville and Salisbury are in 1C.
Norem said VA has had to be flexible, including recently when VISN 6 got an unexpected extra 13,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine at the last minute. That meant ramping up scheduling, expanding hours and setting up special events. The Durham VA vaccinated 3,000 veterans in a weekend, he said.
“Our staff is really invested in this effort to get veterans vaccinated,” Norem said.