Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Helping veterans overcome vaccine hesitancy a shot at a time

The Philadelphia VA Health Care System has recorded that 54% of their veterans (over 49,500 individuals) have been fully immunized.

Jonathan Martinez, 34, receives the COVID-19 vaccine from Richard Lawrence at the vaccine clinic at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Philadelphia on Monday.
Jonathan Martinez, 34, receives the COVID-19 vaccine from Richard Lawrence at the vaccine clinic at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Philadelphia on Monday.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Jonathan Martinez, a U.S. Marine who served in Iraq, didn’t mind the jab he got in his left shoulder Monday morning. It was the thought of it that had bothered him.

“I was hesitant at first,” Martinez, 34, said, sitting six feet apart from a few other vets, their families, and caregivers on the third floor of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in West Philadelphia, waiting in case he showed a reaction to his first Pfizer shot.

He’d felt the conversation over the vaccine became so political that he wavered about getting it for weeks.

But after seeing so many others be immunized and begin to go about their lives again, he said, “I figured that I had to get it sooner or later.”

Although many veterans talk enthusiastically about getting their vaccine, there is a big population more reluctant. Many of the hesitant cite not trusting the government and not trusting the way the vaccine was created. They tell of reading online misinformation — such as that the vaccine contains the AIDS virus, a tracking chip, or other additives.

Martinez is one of nearly 25,000 people who have already gotten shots at the Medical Center’s walk-in vaccination clinics. When the center started its vaccination events in January, about 2,825 people lined up, said Rita Chappelle, chief of medical media and external affairs at the facility.

Now that number has dropped to 80 to 100 a day, part of a nationwide downward trend she noted, as vaccination rates continue to come down off their April peak.

Local and national agencies and organizations like the VA have been holding information panels, walk-in vaccinations, and virtual town halls to help veterans overcome any hesitations.

Chappelle goes as far as standing beside the wary as they get their shots to alleviate some fears.

» READ MORE: A shot and a taco. That was the offer at Jefferson’s mobile vaccine unit at South Philly Barbacoa.

As of mid-May, 45% of veterans who use Veterans Affairs services have been vaccinated. The Philadelphia VA Health Care System has recorded that 54% of its veterans (more than 49,500 individuals) have been fully immunized.

Those rates are similar to Philadelphia’s Police and Fire Departments, where nearly half among their ranks are also unvaccinated.

“I think we thought we’d be higher, but to be honest I don’t know what we know — if indeed the vaccines we’ve given is the true total of the number of our veterans who’ve gotten vaccinated — given the widespread community availability,” said Jane Kim, chief consultant for preventive medicine with the VA.

Everyone 12 and over is eligible for the vaccine. As of last week, 77,000 Philadelphians were fully vaccinated and more than 36,700 are partially vaccinated. This number does not include immunizations from federal facilities like veterans hospitals and prisons.

After the first wave of vaccinations early this year, Kim and her team asked more than 800 veterans why they got the shot. One of the big reasons was a sense of service: By getting vaccinated they would be limiting the virus’ spread and helping return the country recover.

One veteran who is resisting the vaccine is Dennis Fink, owner of a hoagie shop in Northeast Philadelphia, and a U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968.

Service is important to him; when he came home to Philadelphia at age 23, Fink started a VFW post. He’s worked for years on veteran issues and has worked at the Veterans Center.

» READ MORE: Is it OK to offer a shot at lottery money to get people vaccinated? As bioethicists we say yes. | Opinion

He said he doesn’t trust something that has been pushed so hard by the government. Plus, he noted, he’s remained healthy.

At 73, he still works every day at his store, Fink’s Hoagies. He sees many veterans like himself every day at his shop and says many of them feel the same way. Fink doesn’t smoke, has never done drugs nor had a drink in more than 40 years. He doesn’t feel the need to get something extra to protect himself.

“I’ve been open since [the pandemic] started,” he said. “I haven’t gotten sick.”

Kim said another cause for hesitancy is the lack of access to reliable medical information. She and others have been working to provide data through local partners like physicians and panels with other veterans.

She was recently on a panel with Team Rubicon, a veterans organization that deploys veterans in emergency situations. They have held vaccination events in more than 100 cities across the United States so far.

Like Chappelle of the VA, Team Rubicon president and COO Art delaCruz said organizations have to meet people where they are. One of their approaches is to offer familiar faces through veterans who have taken the vaccine. Last week’s panel also featured experts like Kim.

On Monday, as a group of recently vaccinated veterans waited after their shots, Chappelle pitched them on spreading the word about a Memorial Day event to feature veterans speaking about vaccination.

“Veterans have been our greatest tool in getting other veterans to come out,” she said.

» READ MORE: In Philly’s suburbs, the people who need COVID-19 vaccines the most may be the toughest to reach

One vet waiting at the VA, Norman Owens Jr., brought his wife and four kids out to be vaccinated.

A Marine veteran who served from 1989 to 1993, Owens said it was important for the entire family to get the shots.

“I wanted to make sure my family was safe,” he said.

His wife, Kena Marshall-Owens, got COVID-19 last winter and it was a tough experience for the family, whose kids range in age from 16 to 24.

Their 16-year-old daughter, Abigail, was a little iffy about the side effects but was otherwise looking forward to getting the shot and being able to visit her grandparents.

Young veterans and veterans of color are more hesitant about the vaccine until they speak to someone personally about how safe it is, Chappelle said.

“COVID-19 has taken more lives of people of color,” she said. “Unfortunately, the health-care system isn’t equitable.”

Hispanic, Black, and Indigenous populations have suffered a disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Ultimately, we understand you won’t be able to get every veteran vaccinated, but at the very least you want to do everything you can to help those veterans make an informed decision,” said Team Rubicon’s delaCruz. “Which, hopefully, again gets them to the point where they’re rolling up their sleeves and converting a vaccine to a vaccination.”