Every day, our journalism dismantles barriers and shines a light on the critical overlooked and under-reported issues important to all North Carolinians.
As the Pentagon fights COVID-19 vaccine resistance among its troops, at least one North Carolina military base is offering an incentive for service members to accept the shot.
Camp Lejeune is giving battalions and squadrons that hit a 65% immunization rate a four-day weekend, spokespeople for the base told Carolina Public Press.
At least five commands out of 80 — each of varying size —had become eligible as of late May, said 2nd Lt. Jacob Sugg, “with several more approaching.”
The number of troops who have decided to opt out of or stall on getting the vaccine has vexed military leaders and continues to do so. Military officials at bases across North Carolina have described an uphill battle against misinformation to encourage troops, who often live, train and work closely together, to get vaccinated.
But because the vaccines are authorized only for emergency use by the federal government, they are not mandated.
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in mid-May that fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance indoors or outside.
The same day, the Pentagon updated its own mask guidance for personnel. According to the guideline, those who are two weeks past their final COVID-19 dose no longer need to wear masks on Defense Department property.
Some exceptions remain: Schools, child care and health care centers require masks regardless of vaccination status.
Gov. Roy Cooper lifted most of the state’s mask requirements the following day. While unvaccinated troops and civilian personnel may now be able to shop maskless off-base, they must still mask up indoors on base.
The CDC’s updated guidance set off another round of debate across the country over mask-wearing and vaccine passports, and led many to question whether an “honor system” among Americans who have been polarized over the deadly coronavirus could be trusted.
Those arguments also spilled over onto the social media pages for North Carolina military bases, which use sites like Facebook to share base information, including COVID-19-related building capacities and operational statuses.
On May 17, Fort Bragg turned to its Facebook page to clarify questions about the new mask guidelines. The base had no intent to grill personnel about their vaccination statuses, “but rather to get back to some normalcy while trusting our Soldiers and community members,” officials wrote.
“We were supposed to trust in others to do the right thing and get vaccinated,” one person responded. “Most didn’t. Now we’re supposed to trust those same people are going to keep wearing their masks when everyone else isn’t?”
Another appeared to doubt what the base officials said. “The vaccine police will be coming. … It’s only a matter of time,” that person wrote.
To encourage vaccinations, the Pentagon issued another memorandum May 20, in which it also urged leaders to make getting the shot as easy as possible for personnel, including allowing noncharged leave for post-vaccine recovery, if needed.
At a press conference later that day, military health officials told reporters that as many as 58% of active-duty personnel had received at least one dose of the vaccine, up from 37% a month earlier, when the entire Defense Department became eligible to receive the vaccine.
At least 44% of troops are fully vaccinated, though officials said they have seen higher opt-in rates from service members based overseas.
“Now that we’ve moved from a supply-constrained environment to a desire-constrained environment, we don’t anticipate any challenges with access to vaccine in either the military or civilian settings,” said Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Pace, director of the Defense Health Agency.
Locally, military officials said they are seeing increases in the number of troops willing to get the shot.
At Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, more than 50% of soldiers have received the vaccine, base spokesperson Col. Joe Buccino told Carolina Public Press in a phone interview. He declined to give a specific percentage.
“We’ve seen a steady increase the entire time in terms of our opt-in rate,” Buccino said. “So, you know, we’re doing pretty good there. We’ve seen a steady increase; we’re continuing to increase our opt-in rate.”
The base is not offering any incentives for soldiers to receive the vaccine, Buccino said, and instead is continuing to advise troops that the vaccines are safe, effective and vital to readiness. It also recorded an episode of the 18th Airborne Corps podcast about vaccine safety to be played by units, Buccino said.
“It’s a readiness issue for us,” Buccino said. “So, we’re hoping they get it but it’s a personal choice for a soldier.”
An unvaccinated soldier who is caught breaking the mask guidance can be subject to criminal charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Buccino cautioned. He was unaware of any such cases, he said.
An official at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro declined to say in an email how many service members at the base of about 4,600 active-duty personnel had been vaccinated.
“Airmen are expected to uphold integrity and follow the current guidance,” 2nd Lt. Katrina Heikkinen, a spokesperson for the 4th Fighter Wing, said in an email.
At Camp Lejeune, nearly 67% of personnel had declined the vaccine in late April, CNN reported. By late May, at least 40% of the II Marine Expeditionary Force had received “at least one dose of the vaccine with a steady increase over the past month,” Maj. Matthew Finnerty said in an email.
“Currently, service members must verify immunization when entering designated facilities and provide proof of vaccination upon request,” Finnerty wrote. “II MEF expects all personnel to comply with the policy regardless of enforcement measures.”