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Up to 40,000 Army National Guard soldiers across the country – about 13% of the force – have not gotten the mandated COVID-19 vaccine, and as the deadline for shots looms, at least 14,000 of them have flatly refused and could be forced out of the service.
Guard soldiers have until Thursday to get the vaccine. According to data obtained by The Associated Press, between 20% to 30% of Guard members in six states are not vaccinated, and more than 10% in 43 other states still need shots.
Guard leaders say states are doing all they can to encourage soldiers to get vaccinated by the deadline. And they said they will work with the roughly 7,000 who have sought exemptions, which are almost all for religious reasons.
“We’re going to give every soldier every opportunity to get vaccinated and continue their military career. Every soldier that is pending an exemption, we will continue to support them through their process,” said Lt. Gen. Jon Jensen, director of the Army National Guard, in an Associated Press interview. “We’re not giving up on anybody until the separation paperwork is signed and completed. There’s still time.”
“When you’re looking at, 40,000 soldiers that potentially are in that unvaccinated category, absolutely there’s readiness implications on that and concerns associated with that,” said Jensen. “That’s a significant chunk.”
Overall, according to the data obtained by the AP, about 85% of all Army Guard soldiers are fully vaccinated. Officials said that if those with one shot are counted, 87% are at least partially vaccinated.
Across the country, in all but one case, Guard soldiers are vaccinated at a higher rate than the general population in their state. Only in New Jersey is the percentage of vaccinated Guard solders very slightly lower than the state’s overall population, as of earlier this month when the data was collected.
The three U.S. territories – Virgin Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico – and the District of Columbia, all have more than 90% of their soldiers fully vaccinated. The highest percentage is in Hawaii, with nearly 97%, while the lowest is Oklahoma, at just under 70%.
Guard leaders in the states have run special shot programs, and provided as much information as possible to their forces in order to keep them on the job.
In Tennessee, they set up small teams in the east, west and central regions and did monthly events providing vaccines to troops who wanted them. And every Wednesday, Guard members could make appointments for shots in the middle Tennessee region, in Smyrna. In addition, in early June they called in all soldiers who have so far refused the vaccine.
“We held a big, mass event,” said Army Guard Col. Keith Evans. “We had all of our medical providers here. So if there were any questions to clear up, any misconceptions, any misinformation, we had all of our data and were able to provide them all the information.”
Evans, who is commander of his Army Guard’s medical readiness command, said they also had recruiting and other leaders there who could explain what would happen if soldiers chose to not get the shot and ended up leaving the Guard.
“We wanted to let them know what benefits they had earned because these are soldiers that had done their time, served their country,” said Evans.
Officials say they believe the information campaign has been working. Jensen said about 1,500 soldiers a week around the country are moving into the vaccinated category. “We expect, as we approach the deadline, that we’ll see some larger growth.”
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