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US troops' vaccine hesitancy raises risk to Indo-Pacific deterrence

Outbreaks remain a threat as one in three troops decline COVID-19 shot

A F/A-18E Super Hornet prepares to launch from the USS Theodore Roosevelt in December 2020. The aircraft carrier was struck by a cluster of coronavirus infections last year. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

WASHINGTON -- While operating in the Indo-Pacific early in the pandemic last spring, the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt was sidelined by a coronavirus outbreak that infected roughly 30% of its 4,800-member crew.

The nuclear-powered ship was forced to spend two months in Guam to treat and quarantine sailors, in an incident that observers said threatened the U.S. military's ability to serve as a deterrent to China. COVID-19 cases broke out on at least four U.S. carriers around that time including the Theodore Roosevelt, adding to the alarm.

Now, even with vaccination against the disease picking up steam, the military remains at risk of another disabling outbreak because of the reluctance of many troops to take the shot.

About two-thirds of service members are accepting the vaccine, based on early data, Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro, vice director for operations of the Joint Staff, told the the U.S. Congress' House Armed Services Committee in a hearing Wednesday. Edward Bailey, the surgeon for Army Forces Command, said rates of vaccine acceptance are languishing at around 30% in some units.

"We're still struggling with what is the messaging and how do we influence people to opt in for the vaccine," Bailey said.

U.S. Navy sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt prepare to return to the ship following completion of their off-ship quarantine in Guam on April 30. (U.S. Navy via Reuters)

The situation is better at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where the rate is about 60%. But that is still "not as high as we would hope for front-line personnel," Bailey said.

This worry owes partly to aspects of military life that make an outbreak more likely. Troops stationed on a base live and work side by side, and crews on nuclear submarines or aircraft carriers can spend months on end confined together in a small space. Precautionary measures such as masks and social distancing are difficult to maintain during drills.

U.S. service members stationed in Okinawa and other parts of Japan have tested positive for the coronavirus over the past few months. Just last week, all personnel at the U.S. Air Force's Osan base in South Korea were told to "shelter in place" after a case emerged there.

A U.S. Air Force member receives a coronavirus disease vaccine at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. (U.S. Air Force via Reuters)

COVID-19 struck the Roosevelt again recently, with three crew members testing positive for the virus last week. The ship remains on active duty. Earlier this month in the South China Sea, two U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups, led by the Roosevelt and USS Nimitz, participated in a joint exercise to increase interoperability.

The consequences of last spring's outbreak on the Roosevelt reverberated up the chain of command. 

The captain of the ship, Brett Crozier, sent an email to senior Navy leaders warning of "inadequate" efforts to contain the virus on board and urging the speedy isolation of all crew members not needed to continue operating its systems. After the message was leaked, Crozier was stripped of his post, and the strike group's commander had a pending promotion put on hold.

Then-acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly later resigned amid an uproar after he lambasted Crozier in an address to the carrier's crew.

Later in the year, U.S. naval power in Indo-Pacific was dealt another blow by a fire that gutted the USS Bonhomme Richard amphibious assault ship in July.

Asked about vaccine hesitancy in the armed forces, Department of Defense press secretary John Kirby told reporters Wednesday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin "recognizes that these are individual decisions." Because the shots have been authorized for emergency use but not formally approved, there are limits to the Pentagon's ability to make them mandatory, Kirby said.

The department aims for full vaccination by summer.

The rate of vaccine acceptance in the military is roughly similar to the general U.S population, which a Gallup poll this month put at 71%.

The Pentagon is considering incentives to encourage troops to get inoculated. The Army may cut quarantine periods for forces deploying to Europe to five days from the current two weeks if 70% of a unit is vaccinated, according to U.S. media, though the host country's consent would be needed.

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