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Top VA doctor shares plan to vaccinate millions of veterans and issues the mission faces

Veterans Affairs is working to address vaccine hesitancy and make sure veterans have the resources they need amid the pandemic.

WASHINGTON — In the ongoing fight against the spread of COVID-19, a primary focus is vaccinating vulnerable communities. That includes veterans, many of whom have pre-existing medical conditions that increase their likelihood for moderate to severe symptoms. 

Now, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says it is trying to make sure the veterans it serves understand the importance of getting the COVID-19 vaccine, especially since 11,000 vets have already died of the virus. 

The current VA plan includes veteran support groups, where vets can talk openly and honestly among other veterans about their vaccine concerns, and tapping into the doctor-veteran relationship to help ease the worries of hesitant veterans.

“I’m absolutely convinced what’s most important in education is someone you trust," Dr. Richard Stone, principal deputy under secretary for health at the VA, said. "Someone who is talking to you, that you know. And it has to be your provider, family or a close friend.”

Stone is the top doctor for the Veterans Health Administration, which oversees health care for 9 million vets enrolled in the program. Data shown inside the Healthcare Operations Center allows Stone to determine where additional doses of COVID-19 vaccine, supplies or personnel are needed most.

The information is being pulled from all over the country in real-time. At the time of this report, the Department of Veterans Affairs said more than 1.6 million veterans have already been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Between D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, that number stands at over 52,000 with about 75,000 veterans waiting on a second shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.

A big push recently also involves making sure white veterans and veterans in rural communities get vaccine information because research data shows these demographics may be hesitant to get the vaccine.

“Rural veterans are not taking the vaccine as much as urban veterans are,” Stone said. “Our Black veterans are actually taking the vaccine at a higher rate than our white veterans. Hispanic veterans at a higher rate than our white veterans. We’re having trouble with urban and rural and that’s why you see us flying vaccine out to place and having some pretty big vaccine events to reach rural areas.”

Researchers at various institutions have noted a similar trend in scholarly publications. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that vaccine hesitancy was highest among rural, white Americans in an analysis released earlier this year.

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