Injecting trust into the nation’s vaccine strategy

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on August 16, 2020. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

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Moderna and Pfizer recently started trials to determine the effectiveness of vaccines that might halt Covid-19. But there’s a catch. Half the American people won’t take the vaccines now in development, jeopardizing national recovery. America should enlist the US military to demonstrate vaccine safety to the American public.

The US military knows vaccinations. They’re routine. In my two-decade military career I’ve built a vaccination rap sheet running 6 pages and 45 entries (definitely an undercount). I’ve been inoculated against anthrax, smallpox, and in 2009 I had a couple shots to protect against H1N1.

I remember I once momentarily protested a shot for Japanese encephalitis. I thought it was a mistake. That I’d already had it. But the line was long, confirmation would take forever, so I just shrugged and took the spike. (Later, I learned I was wrong. I really did need that vaccine.)

There’s good reason for all these shots. Fighting forces have always feared disease. In 1777, George Washington wrote that smallpox was “more destructive to an Army in the Natural way, than the Enemy’s sword.” Pre-World War I, infectious disease killed more soldiers in battle than all the bayonets, bullets, and bombs.

The military struck back. US Army Major Walter Reed determined that mosquitos spread yellow fever in turn-of-the-last-century Cuba. At the same time, in Manila, the US Army built the Tropical Disease Board, which made great gains against beri-beri, malaria, and dengue fever. The Office of Malaria Control in War Areas was established in 1942 and survived to live on with another name: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CDC’s current director, Dr. Robert Redfield, recently told a Senate Hearing that he’s been developing a plan to increase “vaccine confidence.” Public trust is the problem. Assuming a vaccine is safe and effective, American mass adoption on the order of 75 to 85 percent is necessary to achieve herd immunity, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

But the efforts to combat vaccine hesitancy will fail if the American public doesn’t trust the government. Operation Warp Speed—the government’s plan to beat Covid-19—will only move at the “speed of trust,” in the phrase made popular by business writer Stephen M.R. Covey.

America needs trust right now. Pew Research has found Americans trust in government today has cratered to around 17 percent, down from near 80 percent in the early 1960s. Resisting this downward spiral, the US military remains one of the most trusted institutions in the country. One recent poll showed 83 percent support.

Trials will proceed until a vaccine candidate is deemed provisionally safe. Then, testing will require more volunteers in greater numbers to affirm widespread efficacy. This is where the military is poised to provide much-needed support for bolstering public confidence.

The US military is a large, representative sample of people that America trusts implicitly. Of course it doesn’t have many older people for testing. But generally, when the American military is involved, the entire country is represented. If a vaccine is demonstrated effective by military volunteers, few beyond the fringe would refute such physical proof.

Military personnel are naturally dispersed. This ensures such a program could be accomplished in controlled, contained circumstances that wouldn’t burden local community health resources.

The benefits aren’t limited to the public. There’s strategic gain. Wars don’t stop for viruses. Covid-19 is now as fixed a feature of the environment as rivers and mountains, and so soldiers will require Covid-19 protection as soon as it’s available. Without herd immunity, American forces would find themselves at a major disadvantage everywhere.

At home, those of us in military uniform have had to stand by while more Americans have been killed by Covid-19 than all the wars from Korea to today. We’ve watched health-care workers suffer casualties in terrible numbers.

If there were such a program to boost American faith in Operation Warp Speed, it’s a safe bet there’d be no end to military volunteers. I’d gladly make it #46 on my own vaccination bucket-list. If there’s one thing we in the military know and do well, it’s take the tough shot for the greater good.

 

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