Vaccines are working, Pentagon says as the surge in deaths from COVID troops comes to a standstill

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After a month-long spike that nearly tripled COVID-19 deaths among service members, no reported numbers have been reported in the past two weeks, updated by the Department of Defense on Wednesday.

The service member death toll stands at 75, down from 29 in late July, a number that rose through the end of summer and into the fall when cases of delta variants devastated parts of the United States. There were double-digit deaths in August, September and October, but these have eased as the mandatory vaccination deadlines approached.

“This is a clear indicator of the success of the vaccine mandate, as 98.5% of the active armed forces received at least one shot,” Army Major Charlie Dietz, a Pentagon spokesman, told the Military Times on Wednesday.

Of the 75 soldiers who died from COVID-19 complications, none were fully vaccinated. Two had completed the first of a two-dose treatment.

The overall military mortality rate was 0.03%, significantly lower than the overall 1.6% in the U.S., but that number is over 50 times higher than the military mortality rate prior to the rise in the Delta variant in late summer.

While the Delta variant is no more deadly than its predecessors, it is much more easily transmitted, resulting in more cases, and therefore more deaths.

To date, the military services combined have reported more than 250,000 COVID-19 cases, or 11 percent of the force. The US overall rate is closer to 16 percent.

To combat further surges, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced in August his intention to require vaccination for active and reserve troops. Each service then set its own deadlines, beginning with the active Air Force on November 2nd and ending with the Army Reserve and National Guard by the end of June.

So far, 1,555,424 soldiers have been fully vaccinated, and another 323,260 have received the first two-dose therapy, so that around 421,000 – most of them in the Army Reserve and the National Guard – are completely unvaccinated.

Each of the services has developed guidelines to involuntarily segregate troops who refuse to be vaccinated and who have not been granted an exemption.

While these cases are being dealt with, soldiers will be excluded from reinstatement and Airmen will not be able to undertake scheduled permanent relocations.

A legal battle could be imminent for some National Guard troops. Oklahoma’s adjutant general announced in early November that he would not enforce the federal vaccination mandate by order of the state governor.

Since guards forces are under the control of their governors unless they are mobilized at the federal level under U.S. Title 10, there is a possibility that their chains of command may not initiate involuntary separations in accordance with instructions from their service secretaries.

However, that refusal could exclude them not only from missions, but also from federal training and professional military training necessary for the continuation of their careers.

A defense official told reporters Nov. 17 that scheduled weekends of exercise conducted in a state-controlled, federal-activated status would also require vaccination or have consequences.

It is also possible that the National Guard Bureau or Air Force or Army divisions can individually review their unvaccinated Oklahoma troops and initiate separations at the headquarters level.

The Pentagon has said it can enforce its lawful order but has not provided details on how to do so.

Meghann Myers is the head of the Pentagon office at Military Times. It covers operations, politics, human resources, leadership, and other issues that affect service members. Follow @Meghann_MT on Twitter


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