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How veterans and military families can learn more about the coronavirus vaccine

Dr. Anthony Fauci and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley urged military and veteran families to get the coronavirus vaccine.

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James Hill, 69, who served separate stints in both the Army and Navy, left, holds his sleeve as Brent Myers, a CVS pharmacist, readies to administer the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination at the Mississippi State Veterans Home in Jackson, Miss., Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. To help veterans and military families decide if and when they should get the vaccine, Veterans Affairs and TRICARE — the health care provider for service members — each have websites about vaccine eligibility, distributions plans and numerous Q&As about the vaccines’ development and safety.

Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

More than a million service members, veterans and their caretakers have already received the coronavirus vaccine.

And to help veterans and military families decide if and when they should get the vaccine, Veterans Affairs and TRICARE — the health care provider for service members — each have websites about vaccine eligibility, distributions plans and numerous Q&As about the vaccines’ development and safety.

Officials, from coronavirus task force member Dr. Anthony Fauci to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, have said that independent studies show the vaccine is safe and encouraged service members and veterans to talk with their health care providers “to make the right decision for you and your family.”

For veterans

Register at this Veterans Affairs website for coronavirus vaccine updates and eligibility notification: COVID-19 vaccines at VA

(Author’s note: As an Army vet, I signed up to receive the VA’s coronavirus vaccine emails earlier this year and have found them informative. The idea to write this story is a result of those emails.)

For military service members and their families

TRICARE is offering more information about their coronavirus vaccine plans here: COVID Vaccine

Who’s already had the shot

The VA announced this week that military veterans have received 582,000 first-doses and 44,000 second-doses of either the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and VA employees have received over 401,000 doses, reported Military.com this week.

So far, Veterans Affairs has focused vaccine distribution on VA health care workers, veterans living in long-term care facilities and veterans who are considered a high risk by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Department of Defense said Thursday it has given more than 500,000 shots, The Associated Press reported.

The Defense Department has prioritized health care workers, essential installation employees and deploying service members for the vaccine.

“It’s a voluntary vaccine,” said Joint Staff Surgeon Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, according to AP. “There are people in, I think, every walk of life across our country who are making this choice as they’re offered the opportunity to get vaccinated.”

Vaccine safety

Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), met with military and veteran families during a virtual town hall Thursday to address concerns they had about the safety of the coronavirus vaccine. The meeting was hosted by Blue Star Families, a nonprofit that supports active military and veteran families.

“Over half of our respondents said that they did not feel comfortable, at this time, getting the vaccine and many remain undecided,” said Kathy Roth-Douquet, cofounder and CEO of Blue Star Families, of an informal survey they did of military families. “Their concerns range from distrust of the vaccine’s development process to its safety, overall efficacy and to the potential for unknown side effects.”

Speaking to the military families’ concerns, Fauci said the vaccines had been created years faster than other vaccines but “there were no corners cut.

“We did not sacrifice safety nor did we sacrifice scientific integrity,” Fauci said. “The decision to determine that the vaccine was safe and effective was made by independent bodies of vaccinologist, scientist, immunologist, statisticians (and) ethicists that were beholding, not to federal government nor to the companies, but to you the American public.”

The NIAID director added that the medical technology that went into developing the vaccine so quickly had already been in the works for over a decade.

Gen. Milley — who addressed the town hall with his wife Hollyanne, a career nurse — said it was a “personal decision” to get the vaccine and urged the thousands of participating military families to talk with their family physicians “to make the right decision for you and your family.”

What about possible side effects?

“The safety record for this, even though it’s just been one year (of vaccine testing), has been really quite good,” Fauci said. Adding that there have been some very rare cases of allergic reaction — around “one to six per million” — in people who have a “strong history of severe allergic reactions.”

He recommended that people worried about their own history of allergic reactions still get the vaccine, but to do it somewhere — like a clinic — that could offer medical assistance if needed.

What about pregnant women?

Although pregnant women were not part of the initial vaccine trials, Fauci said, studies are underway and about 10,000 pregnant woman have received the vaccine. Many of those woman were health care providers, he said, who decided the risk of getting the coronavirus from a patient was greater than the potential side effects of the vaccine.

“And there have been no red-flag signals,” Fauci added, and that those women were being monitored by the Food and Drug Administration.

He added that for babies born to women who’ve been vaccinated, antibodies transfer to the baby in the womb and later through breast feeding “and generally in months will have immunity” to the coronavirus — as is the case with other vaccines.

Are you still contagious after getting the vaccine?

“It is conceivable that because you’re vaccinated, that you could get infected but have no symptoms,” Fauci said. He said that is because coronavirus vaccine studies tested for the “efficacy against clinically apparent disease.”

“After you get vaccinated, you can’t just throw your mask away,” Fauci said at the end of the Q&A. “You’re much more protected, but you’ve got to make sure you protect other people.”