On Thursday, Blue Star Families and the American Red Cross hosted an online town hall for service members, veterans and military-connected families to address questions and concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine. The event assembled some of the top minds from the medical field and the military, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley, as well as opening remarks from first lady Dr. Jill Biden.
Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO of Blue Star Families, and Koby Langley, Senior Vice President of the American Red Cross, took on the challenging task of moderating the town hall. They both represented the vast military community, passing along to the panel all of the questions they have come across, as the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine has increased.
The first lady opened the event by offering words of support and encouragement to military families, and an understanding of the need for open and transparent communication about the vaccine. She asked for all that were watching to “mask up, socially distance, and get the vaccine when it’s your turn.”
Roth-Douquet then introduced Dr. Fauci. Fauci, completely aware of the widespread apprehension of the vaccine, immediately offered some statistics to help ease the fears of those watching. He cited a 94-95% efficacy rate of the vaccine for the prevention of “clinically recognizable disease” in 30,000 people in the Moderna trials and 44,000 in the Pfizer trials. Those trials resulted in nearly 100% prevention of severe disease leading to death. Dr. Fauci understands that many are still wary of potential risks and long-term side effects.
Dr. Fauci said, “People ask, ‘Well, wait a minute, you developed this vaccine literally in less than a year from the time you knew about this new virus… how did that happen? Were you reckless? Did you rush? Did you cut corners?’ And the answer is: the speed is completely related to the extraordinary advances in scientific platform technology for vaccines. There were no corners cut. We did not sacrifice safety, nor did we sacrifice scientific integrity. The decision to determine that the vaccine was safe and effective was made by independent bodies… that were beholden not to the federal government, nor to the companies, but to you, the American public.”
Dr. Fauci cited a very low incidence rate of anywhere from one to six people per million having an allergic reaction to the vaccine. Those sporadic cases were also people with a history of such reactions. Vaccination trials for people under 18 are still a work in progress, as are vaccinations for pregnant women. However, approximately 10,000 pregnant women have gotten the vaccine outside of the trials, and there have been no reports of adverse events. Furthermore, the vaccine will provide their unborn child with some passive immunity into the early stages of their life.
Dr. Fauci was straightforward in responding to Roth-Douqet asking if this will be a yearly vaccination, saying that we can’t be sure yet what the durability of the immune response will be, and that there may be a need to upgrade the vaccine in response to mutations of the virus. He emphasised, however, that wouldn’t be difficult to do.
Addressing the concerns of those with pre-existing conditions or with a suppressed immune system, Fauci said, “…The people that have underlying conditions, they often ask me, ‘does that mean I should not get vaccinated?’ And my response is, ‘On the contrary. That’s more reason why you should get vaccinated.”
When Dr. Fauci was finished, General Milley and his wife Holly-Ann (a healthcare professional of over thirty years herself) delivered a message that echoed the previous speakers’ sentiments, urging everyone to wear masks and stressing the importance of getting vaccinated. General Milley clarified that getting the vaccine is still a personal decision, and advised service members to consult their physicians and arm themselves with as much information as possible and “lead the nation in the fight against COVID-19.”
The town hall continued with more military and veteran-centric questions for Lt. General Ronald Place, Director of the Defense Health Agency, and Dr. Richard Stone, Acting Under Secretary for Health at the Veterans Health Administration. Lt. General Place assured overseas families that they are in the planning process for distribution of the vaccine, and also made sure reserve and National Guard units knew they had not been forgotten. Those units are already in the process of being vaccinated. However, though the family of any reservist or National Guard member that is activated for over thirty days is eligible for care, vaccinations are not available for healthy family members below 65 at this time.
After Langley reported that one-third of responding military families that didn’t want the vaccine cited “personal health reasons,” Dr. Stone reiterated the importance of immunocompromised individuals getting vaccinated. Dr. Stone also acknowledged that a significant portion of veterans receiving care live in rural areas and may not have the same access as someone in more urban areas. He directed veterans and their families to find more information and stay updated on the Veterans Affairs website, here. Dr. Stone was also proud to show an example of outreach to rural communities, as they recently flew the vaccine to a community in Montana to vaccinate 500 higher-risk individuals.
The town hall was concluded with a contribution from the enlisted side. Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of STAFF (SEAC) Ramón Colón-López and his wife, Janet Colón, offered guidance from their own personal experience. Janet opened by acknowledging the difficulty in knowing where to proceed as a family with the vaccine, but urged everyone watching to keep an open mind, not let social media drive the decision, and stay updated.
SEAC Colón-López recently received the vaccine and reported no side effects besides a sore arm, which he credits in part to staying physically fit. His wife followed that, saying, “a healthy immune system is a great first line of defense against illness. Do not let quarantines, lockdowns and social distancing keep you from staying active. Get creative, and develop the right habits to stay fit, all while staying safe.”
The COVID-19 vaccine town hall was wrapped up in less than fifty minutes. The event was a definite success in disseminating information, therefore hopefully dispelling some myths and calming fears about the vaccine. It was a rare opportunity to have so many high ranking officials available to field questions at the same time, and likely contributed to a big step forward in dealing with COVID-19.
You can watch the entire town hall below. For more resources and ways to connect your military family to the rest of the community, visit Blue Star Families.