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Branches set deadlines for troops to get COVID shots; vaccine drive underway at Offutt
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Branches set deadlines for troops to get COVID shots; vaccine drive underway at Offutt

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Pentagon to issue guidance to make vaccine mandatory for military now that Pfizer is approved by Food and Drug Administration.

Military service members in Nebraska now know when they have to get COVID-19 shots or, possibly, get out.

Last week, the Army became the last of the service branches to implement Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s Aug. 24 order requiring all active-duty, National Guard and Reserve service members to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Members of regular Army units will have until Dec. 15 to get vaccinated. Guard and Reserve members will have until June 30.

“This is quite literally a matter of life and death for our soldiers, their families, and the communities in which we live,” Lt. Gen. R. Scott Dingle, the Army’s surgeon general, said in a statement.

The Army is giving soldiers longer to comply with Austin’s order than the other branches, which announced their deadlines earlier this month.

Active-duty members of the Navy and Marine Corps have until Nov. 28, and reservists until Dec. 28, to be fully vaccinated.

For the Air Force and Space Force, the deadlines are earlier: Nov. 2 for active-duty airmen and guardians and Dec. 2 for the Guard and Reserves.

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The 55th Medical Group started administering the mandatory vaccine at Offutt Air Force Base’s Ehrling Bergquist Clinic on Sept. 7, said Ryan Hansen, a 55th Wing spokesman. He said spouses and dependents of active-duty service members are eligible to receive shots at the clinic.

Under Defense Department policy, individual bases or commands do not release information about COVID-19 illnesses or vaccinations, so it’s not clear what percentage of Offutt’s service members have received the shots. Across the entire Air Force and Space Force, 82% of active-duty service members had received at least one vaccine dose as of Sept. 13. Counting the Air Guard and Reserve, the number is 76%.

To date, 40,756 airmen and guardsmen have tested positive for COVID-19. Seventeen have been hospitalized, and three have died.

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The Nebraska National Guard has just begun to make plans for how to administer the vaccines in light of the new requirements, said Maj. Scott Ingalsbe, a Guard spokesman.

“Now that the timeframes are known for each service, that allows commanders to work vaccination clinics into plans for upcoming training assemblies,” he said in an email.

He said the Guard has been providing COVID-19 shots to members and their families since the vaccines became widely available in the spring.

To date, 47% of Nebraska National Guard members have reported receiving at least one dose of the vaccine, a number well below that of any of the service branches nationally, and below state and national averages among civilians.

But Ingalsbe indicated that the number could be artificially low because it may not include Guard members who have been vaccinated by civilian medical authorities but haven’t yet provided documentation to their military units.

The military branches do provide processes for service members to request exemptions for what the Army describes as “a legitimate medical, religious or administrative reason.”

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Vaccine requirements are not new for members of the armed forces. As many as nine vaccines are required for service in North America, including measles, rubella, mumps, polio, influenza and diphtheria-tetanus. Additional shots may be required for certain overseas or high-risk assignments.

Service members who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine are putting their careers at risk.

The Army, for example, says soldiers who don’t comply would at first be counseled by their own commanders and military medical providers. If they continue to refuse, they could receive administrative punishment — including possible relief from their duties or discharge from the Army.

Officers and senior enlisted leaders could be removed from command or removed from promotion lists.

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