Hundreds of Thousands of US Troops Remain Unvaccinated

Carolyn Crist

October 11, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Hundreds of thousands of US service members are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated against COVID-19 as the first vaccine mandate deadlines approach, according to data analyzed by The Washington Post.

Overall, the military's vaccination rate has climbed since August, when the Pentagon announced that COVID-19 immunization would become mandatory for the nation's 2.1 million troops, the newspaper reported. Acting on a directive from President Joe Biden, leaders said exemptions would be rare and unvaccinated service members would face consequences.

But compliance has varied across the services, the newspaper found. About 90% of the active-duty Navy is fully vaccinated, compared with 76% of the active-duty Marine Corps. Both have a November 28 deadline to show proof of full vaccination.

About 81% of the active-duty Air Force is fully vaccinated, leaving more than 60,000 personnel about 3 weeks to get a shot before a November 2 deadline.

Military officials said the variance in vaccination rates is related to the different deadlines, the newspaper reported. As the dates approach, most troops are expected to meet the order.

At the same time, some deadlines are spaced farther out, with the Army Reserve and National Guard required to be fully vaccinated by next summer. About 40% of the Army Reserve and 38% of the National Guard are fully vaccinated. Combined, they account for a quarter of the US military and 40% of the COVID-19 deaths among service members.

"The Army's policy is incentivizing inaction until the latest possible date," Katherine Kuzminski, a military policy expert at the Center for a New American Security, told the Post.

"The way we've seen the virus evolve tells us looking out to June 30 may need to be reconsidered," she said.

COVID-19 deaths have surged in some of the services in recent months, the newspaper reported. More military personnel died from COVID-19 in September than in all of 2020. None of those who died were fully vaccinated.

Throughout the pandemic, more than 246,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported among service members, according to the latest data from the Defense Department. More than 2,200 have been hospitalized, and 62 personnel died, including 32 in August and September.

For the Army Reserve and National Guard, the June deadline allows "necessary time to update records and process exemption requests," Lt. Col. Terence Kelley, an Army spokesman, told the Post.

Kelley noted that the extended date reflects how large the groups are, compared to the other services and their military reserves, as well as the broad geographic distribution of its members. Still, vaccine mandates will apply.

"We expect all unvaccinated soldiers to receive the vaccine as soon as possible," Kelley said. "Individual soldiers are required to receive the vaccine when available."

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