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Virus Notebook

Hundreds of thousands of troops have not yet complied with vaccine mandate as deadlines near

Military medical personnel at Camp Lejeune, N.C., administer coronavirus vaccines in January.U.S. Marine Corps

Hundreds of thousands of US service members remain unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated against the coronavirus as the Pentagon’s first compliance deadlines near, with lopsided rates across the individual services and a spike in deaths among military reservists illustrating how political division over the shots has seeped into a nonpartisan force with unambiguous orders.

Overall, the military’s vaccination rate has climbed since August, when Defense Department leaders, acting on a directive from President Biden, informed the nation’s 2.1 million troops that immunization would become mandatory, exemptions would be rare and those who refuse would be punished. Yet troops’ response has been scattershot, according to data assessed by the Washington Post.

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For instance, 90 percent of the active-duty Navy is fully vaccinated, whereas just 72 percent of the Marine Corps is, the data show, even though both services share a Nov. 28 deadline. In the Air Force, more than 60,000 personnel have just three weeks to meet the Defense Department's most ambitious deadline.

Deaths attributed to COVID-19 have soared in parts of the force as some services struggle to inoculate their troops. In September, more military personnel died of coronavirus infections than in all of 2020. None of those who died was fully vaccinated, Pentagon spokesman Major Charlie Dietz said.

Military officials explain the variance in vaccination rates, in part, by pointing to the staggered deadlines each of the services set for personnel to comply while expressing optimism that, as those dates approach, numbers will quickly rise and a vast majority of troops will carry out their orders. Thousands of troops already have begun their two-shot regimens, like in the Navy, where 98 percent of active-duty sailors have received at least one dose, officials said.

But other services are not on such a steady path, and critics say the large gaps between vaccination deadlines jeopardize how ready the military can be in a moment of crisis. They point specifically to the reserves and National Guard, which over the last two years have been called upon in numerous emergencies — at home and overseas — and yet large numbers of their personnel have so far refused to get vaccinated.

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“The Army’s policy is incentivizing inaction until the latest possible date,” said Katherine L. Kuzminski, a military policy expert at the Washington think tank Center for a New American Security, citing plans that require Army Reserve and National Guard personnel to be fully vaccinated more than eight months from now. Coronavirus vaccines have been widely available since the spring.

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

Combined, the Army Guard and Reserve comprise approximately 522,000 soldiers, roughly a quarter of the entire US military, and they account for nearly 40 percent of the 62 service member deaths due to COVID-19, according to the data. Barely 40 percent are fully vaccinated. The active-duty Army, facing a Dec. 15 deadline, stands at 81 percent.

A rise in military infections, hospitalizations, and deaths mirrored the summer surge across the United States as the virus’s Delta variant became the dominant strain and hit younger, unvaccinated people particularly hard, the Pentagon said. Defense officials expect deaths to ebb in the coming months.

Since the pandemic began, about a quarter-million service members have been infected with the virus, according to Pentagon data, including more than 2,000 who were hospitalized.

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WASHINGTON POST

Fauci encourages outdoor trick-or-treating

Dr. Anthony Fauci came to the defense of the mask-friendly holiday of Halloween during a CNN interview Sunday, saying that outdoor trick-or-treating was perfectly safe.

“It’s a good time to reflect on why it’s important to get vaccinated,” he said, urging those who were eligible for coronavirus shots to get them before Halloween to protect themselves and their children. “But go out there and enjoy Halloween.”

The nation’s top infectious disease doctor said that the ability for parents to get vaccinated, combined with the low risk of the virus spreading outdoors, offered some reassurance.

“This is a time that children love,” Fauci said. “It’s a very important part of the year for children.”

The Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds in May. Since then, more than 8.2 million children in that age group have received at least one dose, and more than 6.7 million have been fully vaccinated.

NEW YORK TIMES

Hundreds of firefighters intend to sue LA over vaccine mandate

Vaccine hesitancy among police officers in the United States has been one of the themes of pandemic news this year, but in some places, firefighters are joining the resistance.

This past week, hundreds of firefighters in Los Angeles filed a notice of intent to sue the city over its vaccine mandate, saying an Oct. 20 deadline to get vaccinated is “extreme and outrageous.”

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The notice, filed Thursday, said each of the 871 firefighters would seek $2.5 million each if the lawsuit is filed — for a projected total of over $2.1 billion. A lawyer representing the group said that the city would have 45 days to evaluate the notice and that he expected to file the suit immediately after that period.

Firefighters in Spokane, Wash., joined state workers in a lawsuit over statewide vaccine mandates, according to KXLY-TV. In Orange County in Florida, a group of firefighters upset by a vaccine mandate sued the county, WFTV reported.

The International Association of Fire Fighters’ statement on vaccines offers no support for rejecting vaccine mandates. Instead, it notes the extreme importance of vaccination for “fire fighters and medical emergency personnel who work in confined and uncontrolled environments while treating or transporting patients or interacting with the public.” The statement lists the few options available for exemptions and lists some of the financial penalties and job losses that defying mandates could incur.

Kevin McBride, the lawyer representing the Los Angeles firefighters, said in an interview that his clients did not trust the available vaccines and could be fired for defying the city’s vaccine mandate.

All three vaccines used in the United States are highly effective at preventing serious illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19, and serious side effects, such as a strong allergic reaction, are extremely rare.

McBride said Los Angeles authorities had rejected his offer of a “middle ground” in which weekly testing would substitute for getting the shot. The mandate passed by the Los Angeles City Council in August did not include an option for regular testing.

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As of Thursday, about 64 percent of members of the Los Angeles Fire Department were fully vaccinated, according to a spokeswoman, Cheryl Getuiza, and about 1,200 members had not had a single shot. Since the pandemic began, two members have died, and 1,070 have been infected, she said.

NEW YORK TIMES

GOP candidate for Texas governor hospitalized with COVID

PLANO, Texas — Tea party firebrand Allen West, a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor of Texas, was hospitalized with COVID-19 on Sunday but said he’s “doing great.”

“No complaints. I’m just relaxing,” West told the Associated Press during a brief phone interview from a hospital in the Dallas suburb of Plano. He said he got a good night’s rest and was awaiting the results of an early morning chest X-ray.

West and his wife, Angela West, were diagnosed with the virus after attending a “packed house” fundraising event in Seabrook, Texas, last week. He said Saturday that he is “suspending in-person events until receiving an all-clear indication.”

Both Wests received monoclonal antibody treatments for COVID-19 and Angela, who was vaccinated against the virus, was released to go home, Allen West said on Twitter. The Republican candidate said he has not gotten a coronavirus vaccination and that doctors were worried Saturday about the lowered level of oxygen saturation in his blood.

West said on Twitter Sunday that, if elected governor, he would “vehemently crush anyone forcing vaccine mandates” in Texas.

West is a former Texas Republican Party chair and Florida congressman. He announced in July that he would challenge Republican Governor Greg Abbott, who is running for a third term and has been endorsed by Donald Trump.

ASSOCIATED PRESS