WASHINGTON -- Although safety guidelines are in place to stem the spread of COVID-19, vaccines are what will end the virus, top Army medical leaders said during a virtual town hall Monday, in an effort to encourage Soldiers to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
For now, the coronavirus vaccine is voluntary for Soldiers, but following full approval from the Food and Drug Administration, FDA, or if the president waives the option for them to receive it, the vaccine may become mandatory, similar to the influenza shot.
But with limited supplies, it’s unlikely either will happen soon. Instead, Army medical leaders are imploring all Soldiers, when their time comes, to take the vaccine and “be part of the solution,” said Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Scott R. Dingle during the town hall.
“If you get vaccinated, you’re doing [your part] to protect someone else who might be at risk,” said Dr. Steven Cersovsky, deputy director of the Army Public Health Center. “As long as you remain unvaccinated, you can become infected and pass it along to other people. You’re part of that transmission chain.”
But many Soldiers remain nervous about the COVID-19 vaccine’s safety, said Lt. Gen. Leslie Smith, the Army’s inspector general, whether it’s a choice based on their medical history, apprehensiveness because of its expedited approval, based on something they read online, or simply because they declined to offer a reason at all.
Soldiers may even “just want to wait and see how others react to the vaccine,” Smith said. But, like with the rest of the senior leaders on stage, he assured all Soldiers the vaccines are safe.
Why it’s safe
Both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were given the green light for emergency use by the FDA, which means although they have not completed every meticulous round of testing required by the administration, a process that often takes a decade to complete, they were determined safe following rigorous reviews of the clinical trials.
During the initial trials, researchers tested the then-experimental vaccines on a small group of people for the first time. In Phase 2 trials, the experimental vaccines were given to a larger group of people to see if they were effective and to further assess their safety. Phase 3 trials were administered to an even larger pool of people.
The trials give researchers enough data to confirm effectiveness, gauge potential side effects, the ability to compare it to other commonly used treatments, and to collect additional information needed to allow the experimental drug or treatment to be safely used.
The FDA also combs through all the raw data collected by researchers to ensure safety, immune response, and efficacy from the trial stages before they are allowed for use and distribution.
Safety and effectiveness is a top concern with the development of the vaccines and researchers believe women trying to get pregnant in the short and long term will not have complications, Cersovsky said.
“Each person needs to make an individual decision with their health care provider regarding getting the vaccine while pregnant, lactating, or if they plan on becoming pregnant soon,” he added.
“I urge you to make certain that your families also get the vaccines,” Dingle said as if speaking directly to individual Soldiers. “Do your part to protect yourselves, your family, and friends, and remain combat-ready. Let me emphasize these vaccines are equally effective on everyone -- I have received the vaccine, and I hope you follow suit and get the vaccine when it is available.”
Myth versus reality
The town hall also gave the medical leaders a chance to set the record straight on misbeliefs concerning the vaccine. For example, despite some theories, vaccinations have no serious side effects, said Col. Jennifer McDannald, Army Public Health Center director, in a pre-recorded video leading into the town hall.
For individuals who have reported side effects, the most common is pain at the injection site, which usually subsides within 24 hours, she said. Although some people have experienced fever, chills, tiredness and headaches; those minor cases are resolved within a few days and are not signs of COVID infection.
While the vaccines may likely stop COVID-19, Soldiers should continue using preventive measures to ensure the vaccine has the most effective chance of working, said Command Sgt. Maj. Diamond D. Hough, senior enlisted leader of U.S. Army Medical Command.
“Vaccines are among the most important accomplishments in modern medicine,” Dingle said. “They have saved more lives around the world than any other medical innovation, including antibiotics and surgery itself.”
If someone does have a negative response to the first of the two-shot vaccine, such as difficulty breathing, they should not take the second dose, Cersovsky said. However, previously experiencing adverse reactions to flu shots does not predict potential complications from the COVID-19 vaccination.
For Hough, taking the vaccine isn’t a gamble. It’s an assurance. “[The vaccines] are safe for everyone,” he said. “The vaccines for COVID-19 are only made available after being demonstrated to be safe and effective. [They] have been manufactured and distributed safely and securely as well.”
One of the town hall’s top messages was trust. The senior leaders urged Soldiers to trust the science, and the Army, because that was the biggest way to ensure overall readiness, they said.
“Our people are important, and safely navigating this pandemic is critical because it’s a matter of Army readiness,” Hough said. “These vaccines are an important part of ensuring we are fit. We need you to stay healthy, not just our Soldiers, but our families, civilians and contractors as well.
“To ensure maximum Army readiness, we are asking for your assistance and your trust,” he added. “We must continue to maintain the highest level of readiness to meet our worldwide responsibilities.”
Right now, over 100,000 Soldiers are deployed in 140 countries. According to Hough, fighting COVID-19 is just as important as any of their deployments because “we must be ready to win decisively here at home, and that means beating this pandemic.”
To date, the Army has vaccinated over 300,000 personnel. That tally, along with the individuals following health guidelines, has offered protection against COVID-19, said Christopher Lowman, the senior official performing the duties of the undersecretary of the Army.
In the meantime, the undersecretary said the prevention guidelines haven’t changed: individuals still need to cover their nose and mouth, maintain social distancing, clean and disinfect their workspaces and wash their hands.
“I understand the concerns about getting vaccinated, however, safety has been the No. 1 priority in developing and administrating these vaccines,” Lowman said, who said he has received the vaccine with no adverse effects. “Building a defense against COVID-19 helps your office or unit, helps our Army, and our nation.”