During a recent vaccination clinic at the Vancouver campus of the VA Portland Health Care System, a few dozen patients trickled in to receive their immunizations against the COVID-19 virus.
There were 34 appointments total that day plus walk-ins, according to lead nurse Judy Bettencourt. It’s a far cry from the 400 daily patients medical staff had been seeing when veterans clinics began offering vaccinations in January – but still, progress is progress.
“We’re just adjusting as we need to,” Bettencourt said. “If they’ve wanted it, they’ve gotten it.”
Across the country, veterans hospitals are facing the same slowdown in overall vaccination rates as the general population, with the initial flood of enthusiastic patients slowing to a trickle. Still, at the June 29 event, patients expressed feelings of freedom, relief and reassurance upon receiving their second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
Nathan Gegenheiner, a 36-year-old Army veteran from Ridgefield, was previously diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy during the height of the pandemic. He’d spent much of the last year in isolation from his 8-year-old and 10-year-old sons. Now cancer-free, he finally got to receive his second dose of the vaccine on June 29 and said he looks forward to being able to catch up on lost time.
“It was probably just a smart idea to do it,” he said, “once my immune system kicked back up.”
Michael Jacques, an Army veteran, had also initially held off on getting vaccinations due to health reasons.
“I had COVID back in January,” Jacques said, adding that he had to spend four days in the hospital.
“After that, I was like, ‘I should probably go in and do this,’ ” Jaques added. “That’s the only reason I waited this long.”
According to Daniel Herrigstad, public affairs officer for the VA Portland Health Care System, the regional branch has so far administered COVID-19 vaccines to approximately 28,000 Oregonians and 10,000 Washingtonians.
An online tracker updated by the VA reports that 33,620 Portland-area veterans have received at least one dose of vaccine; 32,803 have received two doses; and 1,453 have received the one required dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as of Tuesday. That adds up to around one-third of the Portland VA system’s outreach, which serves around 95,000 veterans in Oregon and Southwest Washington.
Those numbers would indicate that local veterans are being vaccinated at a lower rate than adults in the general population; according to a live tracker from the New York Times, 67 percent of the general adult population has received at least one dose of the vaccine as of Tuesday. Fifty-eight percent are fully vaccinated.
However, according to Herrigstad, it’s not that simple. It’s likely that many veterans in the area received their vaccinations through non-VA clinics, like the drive-thru vaccination site at Tower Mall in Vancouver that closed last week after six months of operation.
“Many veterans we know have been vaccinated in the community and our records may not capture those veterans,” Herrigstad said.
There’s not much academic data out there about vaccine hesitancy among veteran populations, Herrigstad added.
“Anecdotally, we seem to be finding the same general concerns as found in the community,” he said.
Judy Russel, executive director of the Clark County Veterans Assistance Center, reported similar anecdotes following the center’s two vaccination clinics on May 26 and June 2.
“We were able to vaccinate 13 veterans over the two-day period. We got the impression it was more about convenience than hesitation,” Russel said. “Many of them were homeless and had a hard time planning and getting to the VA.”
“Many of our veterans, especially the homeless ones, do not trust the VA itself,” Russel added. “Some of the veterans we serve have bad paper and cannot use the VA for health care. They know we are not the VA and we have been able to earn their trust.”
According to a study published in the Medical Surveillance Monthly Report, the military’s peer-reviewed medical journal, service members – like the civilian population – aren’t a monolith when it comes to vaccine hesitancy.
Black service members were less likely than their white counterparts to receive the vaccine, the study found. That same trend is also playing out across the general population and reflects a broader distrust in the nation’s history of racism in medical research.
Confidence in the vaccine also varied among military branches. Army members were least likely to seek out vaccinations, followed by the Air Force and the Navy. Marines were 52 percent more likely than soldiers to get vaccinated, the study found.
Vancouver resident and 26-year-old Navy veteran Brandon Eastman said he just wanted to take a beat before jumping in line. Eastman decided to finally come in for his vaccine in June because he was hearing from medical professionals that it was the right thing to do.
“I was worried about potential side effects with the vaccine being so new,” Eastman explained. “I always planned to get it eventually.”