COVID-19 cases among U.S. service members have been on a steady decline over the last month, as more service members have become vaccinated ahead of the Defense Department’s fast-approaching vaccination compliance deadlines.

The number of cases reached 4,902 the week of Sept. 8 but dropped to 863 cases last week, the military’s lowest number of cases since early June, according to DOD data obtained by VOA.

“The decline, it’s exactly how we wanted it to go,” Defense Department spokesperson Major Charlie Dietz told VOA on Wednesday.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a memo Aug. 25 requiring service members to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or face penalties, leaving deadlines for vaccination compliance to the service branches.

DOD’s vaccination mandate came during a summer surge of the coronavirus across the country that was particularly hard-hitting for unvaccinated people. Nearly as many service members died in August as in all of 2020. More service members died in September than in August, and none of those who died in September were fully vaccinated, Dietz said.

According to data on active-duty troops obtained Wednesday by VOA, 91% of the Army, 99% of the Navy, 96% of the Air Force and Space Force, and 91% of the Marine Corps are fully or partially vaccinated.

But active-duty troops are vaccinated at a much higher rate than their Reserve and Guard counterparts, some of whom have deadlines as late as June 30, 2022.

With less than three weeks until the first of the military’s COVID-19 vaccination compliance dates, about one in five U.S. service members — hundreds of thousands of troops — have yet to get a single COVID-19 vaccine dose.

The Air Force’s COVID-19 vaccination compliance deadline is Nov. 2 for active-duty troops and Dec. 2 for Guard and Reserve airmen.

“With the Air Force deadline up first, it will be interesting to see how they handle things. They are our canary in the coal mine,” a military official told VOA.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department will roll out its plan for civilian workforce vaccine compliance on Friday, according to a military official. The rollout is expected to include how the department will track civilian vaccination rates and what will happen to those civilians who fail to comply.

President Joe Biden set Nov. 22 as the deadline for federal civilian employees to be fully vaccinated, the second-earliest compliance date for DOD, following the date for Air Force active-duty troops.

However, the Pentagon has not yet tracked or received self-reporting COVID-19 vaccination data for more than half of its roughly 765,000 civilian employees.

Catholic objections

As the Pentagon’s compliance deadlines near, the archbishop for military services says Catholic troops should be able to refuse the vaccine based on conscientious objection.

“No one should be forced to receive a COVID-19 vaccine if it would violate the sanctity of his or her conscience,” Timothy P. Broglio, archbishop for the military services, said Tuesday in a statement.

The archbishop had previously supported President Joe Biden’s mandatory vaccination order for U.S. service members, and he still encouraged troops to get vaccinated in his most recent statement. But he added this week that the Catholic Church’s permission to get the COVID-19 vaccine should not overrule a member’s conscious objections to vaccines tested or derived from lab replicas of abortion-derived cells, which is how the COVID-19 vaccines were developed.

Katherine Kuzminski, of the Center for a New American Security, told VOA on Wednesday the statement “is threading a really fine needle,” adding that vaccines for chickenpox, rubella, hepatitis A and poliovirus were all tested with “abortion-derived cell lines” like the tests conducted for the Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines.

“The question will be, has this person ever raised a conscious objection to a previous vaccine?” she said.

According to Dietz, the Pentagon currently requires at least nine vaccines for individuals entering military service, including hepatitis A, hepatitis B, influenza, measles, poliovirus, tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis, and varicella. Up to 17 vaccines are required for service members depending on their role and geographic region.

Objections have been granted to service members in the past for some of their required vaccines, such as the vaccine for anthrax, according to a military official. 

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