Hundreds of thousands of U.S. 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 Joe 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.
For instance, 90% of the active-duty Navy is fully vaccinated, whereas just 72% of the Marine Corps is, the data shows, 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 were fully vaccinated, Pentagon spokesman Maj. 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% 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.
Combined, the Army Guard and Reserve are made up of approximately 522,000 soldiers, roughly a quarter of the entire U.S. military, and they account for nearly 40% of the 62 service-member deaths related to covid-19, according to the data assessed by The Post. Barely 40% are fully vaccinated. The active-duty Army, facing a Dec. 15 deadline, stands at 81%.
A rise in military infections, hospitalizations and deaths mirrored the catastrophic 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 coming months.
Since the pandemic began, about 250,000 service members have been infected with the virus, according to Pentagon data, including more than 2,000 who were hospitalized.
Troops in the National Guard and reserves serve part-time in uniform. But in the past year, as the pandemic, wildfires and civil unrest raged, the Defense Department and governors across the country mobilized more troops for duty than at any time since World War II.
Those service members typically are older than their active-duty counterparts, and their civilian jobs or mobilizations may expose them to the virus more often than full-time troops who live and work on insulated military installations, officials have said.
In a statement, the Army defended the June deadline for its Guard and Reserve units, saying the date reflects how large those organizations are relative to other services and military reserve components, as well as the constraints imposed by the geographic dispersal of its members.
Pandemic-related restrictions on in-person assemblies, such as drilling weekends, have added to the administrative challenge of processing so many medical records, counseling soldiers who remain skeptical about the vaccine and putting needles into people's arms, said Lt. Col. Terence M. Kelley, an Army spokesman.
About half of Army reservists don't live near military health clinics that administer the vaccine, Kelley said. While the Reserve has instructed soldiers on how to upload records documenting any shots they receive from nonmilitary providers, there does not appear to be a clear public push from the Pentagon for soldiers to seek free vaccines from pharmacies or grocery stores when distance is a challenge.
"We expect all unvaccinated soldiers to receive the vaccine as soon as possible. Individual soldiers are required to receive the vaccine when available," Kelley said.
The June deadlines, he said, "allow reserve component units necessary time to update records and process exemption requests."
The Army announced Thursday that soldiers mobilized on federal orders after Dec. 15, the vaccination deadline for active-duty soldiers, must be immunized when they leave their home station. The order allows commanders to accelerate the June 30 timetable, but it would delay movement of any personnel who had not yet started a vaccine regimen, which takes between two to four weeks to complete and be in full compliance with Army guidelines.
LESSONS FROM PAST
Military officials may have other concerns that limit how aggressively they push reservists to comply with the vaccine mandate, including lessons learned from past attempts to do so, said Trupti Brahmbhatt, a senior policy researcher and military health expert at the Rand Corporation.
"The Army probably does not want to risk those retention problems," Brahmbhatt said.
Defense officials have been reluctant to predict how many service members may defy the vaccine mandate. Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, have suggested the number could be significant.
"Question for the SECDEF [Secretary of Defense]: are you really willing to allow a huge exodus of experienced service members just because they won't take the vaccine?" the former Navy SEAL tweeted last month.
"Honestly, Americans deserve to know how you plan on dealing with this blow to force readiness -- it's already causing serious problems," the tweet read.
Crenshaw's office did not return a request for comment. A handful of Air Force officers have joined other government workers in lawsuits seeking to halt the requirement.
Troops' receptiveness to the vaccine has varied widely, especially in Guard and Reserve units, which are less connected to the rigid top-down environment that governs daily life on active duty. Experts attribute that to broader societal attitudes -- millions of American adults remain unvaccinated -- as well as cultural traits unique to each service.
Marines, on average, are younger, predominantly male and like many enlisted personnel throughout the armed forces, generally don't have four-year college degrees, according to 2018 Pentagon data. All of those factors contribute to lower vaccination rates in the broader U.S. population by some degree, according to government data and surveys.
What polls don't capture, however, is how many Marines and other combat-focused troops, compared with civilians who are the same age, generally are more physically fit and, as a consequence, may doubt the need to be vaccinated.
The Marine Corps declined to address why its vaccine rates lag the other services but said that in the six weeks after the mandate was issued, there was a 292% spike in the number of personnel who began a vaccine regimen.
"Marines who refuse the vaccine today," a spokesperson said, "may choose to be vaccinated tomorrow."
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 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."
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, Washington, joined state workers in a lawsuit over statewide vaccine mandates, according to KXLY-TV. In Orange County, 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.
Federal health experts have said 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, like 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.
As of Thursday, about 64% 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.
Los Angeles is also experiencing vaccine hesitancy among its law enforcement agents. The firefighters' notice of intent to sue was filed on the same day that the Los Angeles County sheriff, Alex Villanueva, said he would not enforce the vaccine mandate at his department, which employs some 18,000 people.
Information for this article was contributed by Alex Horton of The Washington Post and Eduardo Medina of The New York Times.