White House officials will tap numerous veterans groups to act as “trusted voices” in communities across the country in administration efforts to convince Americans to get coronavirus vaccines as soon as they’re available.
The plan — dubbed the COVID-19 Community Corps — will also include sports leagues, labor groups, faith leaders and celebrities working together in “a nationwide, grassroots network of local voices people know and trust to encourage Americans to get vaccinated.”
Vice President Kamala Harris hosted a video chat Thursday for participants in the effort, calling it a vital step forward in ending the now year-old pandemic.
“No matter the community, trusted leaders are the best way to boost confidence. You are the best way to deliver information,” she said.
“Sometimes people just need basic information. I mean, you’re asking people to take a shot in the arm they need they need to know what’s going on. They need to know things like what’s in the vaccine. And they need to hear from the people they trust.”
White House officials identified 10 veterans groups involved in the initial steps of the outreach effort: AMVETS, the Blinded Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Modern Military Association of America, Student Veterans of America, The Mission Continues, VetsFirst, Vietnam Veterans of America and the Women’s Veterans Interactive.
Officials said the work will include a series of public information campaigns, town-hall meetings with health leaders and vaccine skeptics, and coordination of resources to help individuals get doses.
The effort comes as the number of coronavirus cases in the Veterans Affairs system has seen a slight rise in recent weeks, a worrisome sign which echoes increases in national infection numbers.
As of Wednesday night, VA officials reported 4,230 active cases of the virus across its medical centers nationwide, up nearly 3 percent over the last two weeks. That number had been steadily declining since mid-January, when the active-case totals hit a pandemic high of more than 20,000.
Nearly 243,000 VA patients have contracted the virus since the start of March 2020. At least 11,300 have died from complications related to it, along with 136 VA employees. Nationwide, about one in every 10 Americans has contracted the virus, and nearly 550,00 individuals have died as a result.
VA has fully vaccinated about 1.6 million veterans and about 260,000 staffers since mid-December, and has seen its allotment of vaccine doses from federal partners steadily rise in recent weeks.
Congress last month approved legislation allowing VA to vaccinate all veterans, spouses and caregivers in coming months, as supplies allow. The total of eligible individuals is estimated at more than 30 million, although VA leaders have said they expect many individuals to receive doses through other available medical resources.
At a press conference on March 26, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said that officials have been pleased thus far with veterans’ enthusiasm in getting the vaccine.
“We’re seeing less hesitancy among black veterans than we feared,” he said. “But we have work to do on rural and highly rural vets.”
Public health officials have said many pandemic restrictions could be lifted in late summer if enough Americans get vaccines in the next few months.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.