In one of the most aggressive military efforts to combat rising Covid-19 infections, the commanding general of the Army base at Fort Rucker, Alabama, issued new orders Tuesday that for the first time will compel servicemembers to show proof of vaccination to their leaders.
In a video posted on Facebook, Maj. Gen. David Francis said the move was necessary because of “rising rates” of Covid-19 cases in surrounding counties, as well as case rates on the base. The new rule, one of the most restrictive in the military, is largely aimed at unmasked military personnel. “If you are not wearing a mask, the leadership will be able to ask you as soldiers” to show proof of vaccination by showing a vaccination card, Francis said.
The Pentagon has given individual commanders discretion since the beginning of the pandemic to set health protection measures based on the situation in their local areas. And while proof of vaccination requirements have been opposed by many local jurisdictions, Francis said the measure was necessary on Fort Rucker. “This measure is very important so we can nip this in the bud,” he said.
Overseas, the commander of US forces in Korea has also tightened measures there due to rising cases. “While we have achieved more than 80% vaccination rate, we are witnessing small clusters of the virus’ spread within select locations,” said Gen. Paul J. LaCamera. “To protect our communities and our mission, we are implementing an immediate, aggressive approach to preventing the virus’ spread any further.”
Korean bars and clubs will be off limits to troops regardless of vaccination status. And all individuals will now be required to wear masks indoors in common areas, also regardless of their vaccination status.
About 70% of the US military has received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday during an off-camera briefing.
“That’s encouraging, but there’s more work to be done,” Kirby added. “We continue to be in the mode of encouraging troops to get vaccinated to the maximum degree.”
Watching Delta closely
Kirby said the Defense Department is “watching the Delta variant closely,” but there have been no policy changes as a result of the variant’s spread so far.
In a press briefing two weeks ago, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense Dr. Terry Adirim warned of the threat the Delta variant poses around the country, especially in areas with lower vaccination rates.
“We are particularly concerned with the impact of the Delta variant on our unvaccinated or partially-vaccinated population and its potential spread at installations that are located in parts of the country with low vaccination rates,” Adirim said at a press briefing on June 30. “We have an active whole genome sequencing program to identify and track variants, and we’re closely watching our DOD case counts, positivity rates and the prevalence of the Delta variant, among all the other variants of concern.”
The decision to impose tighter restrictions at a military base is based on a number of factors, not just the base’s vaccination rate, said Lt. Gen. Ronald Place, director of the Defense Health Agency. Those factors could include the positivity rate, the total number of cases and the vaccination rate in the surrounding community.
“It’s a multifactorial decision.” said Place at the press briefing, speaking alongside Adirim, who added that increasing infection rates in the surrounding community could compel a base commander to impose additional restrictions.
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