SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - The U.S. military has so far kept its coronavirus numbers relatively low, thanks in part to strict discipline and the ability to easily enforce social distancing rules. However, as the Pentagon rolls out COVID-19 vaccines at its bases around the world, it is dealing with the challenge of how to convince service members to voluntarily take the vaccine.
Pentagon leaders say they will not require their personnel to take the vaccine until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives its full approval of the drug. So far, the FDA has only given emergency authorization that allowed for the initial distribution of the vaccine. It could be up to two years before the full approval comes, military officials have told VOA.
That provides an unusual obstacle for the U.S. military, which has been able to effectively combat the virus with more forceful tools not available to civilian authorities, including the ability to strictly control access to the base and what activities are allowed there, and to punish those who break the rules.
"This [vaccine effort] is an interesting situation in that it is voluntary," Col. Doug Lougee, the lead medical officer for U.S. Forces Korea, which began vaccines last month, told VOA.
"Here in the military, especially the Army, we're not used to telling people to volunteer or asking them to volunteer for things like this," he said.
Since the start of the pandemic, the U.S. military in South Korea has not been afraid to impose severe restrictions to "kill the virus," the catchphrase often used by Gen. Robert Abrams, the top U.S. general in South Korea. U.S. bases in Korea have for months been in various stages of lockdown, depending on the severity of the pandemic in the rest of South Korea.
The effort has mostly succeeded. According to a count by the Yonhap news agency, 636 people associated with U.S. forces in the country have tested positive for the virus, a relatively low number considering the tens of thousands of people affiliated with U.S. bases in South Korea. The vast majority of those infections have been of new arrivals from other countries, including the United States. They have been subject to an immediate 14-day quarantine.
Overall, there have only been 15 deaths among the approximately 126,000 U.S. military personnel who have tested positive for the coronavirus worldwide, according to Pentagon statistics, although the toll increases to 210 if affiliated individuals, such as civilian personnel, contractors, and dependents are included. That is a much lower fatality rate than occurs among civilians.
Overcoming vaccine fears
The military began vaccinations for its personnel last month, although it has not said how many service members have received the shots. According to a COVID-19 vaccine tracker on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, the Defense Department has distributed 499,400 doses and administered 256,867 of them, although it's not clear how many of those doses went to non-service members, including civilian employees and contractors.
There was some initial skepticism at U.S. bases in South Korea about the vaccine, which was developed much more quickly than many expected, Col. Lee Peters, U.S. forces spokesperson said.
"When we initially did our screening to get an idea of who wants and doesn't want it, there was a pretty good number of people who said, hey I don't want it," Peters said.
To allay those concerns, the military rolled out educational campaigns to combat disinformation about the vaccine. To set an example, senior leaders were among the first to get the shots. Since then, there have been very few people expressing concerns about the vaccine, Peters said.
"I think we're hitting about the right tone, with not ceding the battlefield to the conspiracy theorists, getting the information out there, but on the other hand not being overbearing or strong-arming people," said Lougee.
For security reasons, military officials in Korea would not say how many personnel have received the vaccine, although frontline health workers and people in other critical positions were first in line.
Eventually, the vaccine will be available to all base-affiliated individuals, officials say. Based on past vaccine approval timelines, though, Peters said it could be 18 to 24 months before the FDA gives the full approval necessary to make the vaccine mandatory.
Meanwhile, U.S. bases will likely continue severe social distancing restrictions, especially during local flare-ups of the virus.
In a reminder of the virus's resiliency, military officials this month imposed a shelter-in-place order on two of the largest bases, following a cluster of infections.
"We've got to really knock back the virus to really low levels before we can start considering stopping some of the other things," said Lougee. "This [vaccine] is just another tool to keep it under control."