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25th service member dies of COVID-19 as White House considers mandatory vaccines

An active-duty senior non-commissioned officer is the 25th service member to die of COVID-19, the Navy confirmed Monday.

Senior Chief Fire Controlman Michael Wilson, 45, assigned to Information Warfare Training Command Virginia Beach, Virginia, died of coronavirus-related complications on Thursday, spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Patricia Kreuzberger told Military Times. He tested positive and was hospitalized the previous Sunday.

“We mourn the loss of our shipmate; our thoughts and prayers are with the Sailor’s family, friends and coworkers during this difficult time,” she said in a statement.

The death is the first reported since late February, when four sailors died within weeks of each other. That was the military’s deadliest month of the pandemic so far, with five deaths followed by nearly two months without any.

Though the Army has been hardest hit by deaths, primarily in its reserve component, the Navy has had the most active-duty deaths of the services, totaling five since a chief petty officer assigned to the beleaguered carrier Theodore Roosevelt died in July.

DoD began vaccinating personnel in mid-December, starting with medical and other frontline staff before moving on to critical national security units, deploying troops and seniors.

Nearly 35 percent of service members are either partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to DoD numbers updated Monday.

The White House is exploring the possibility of making the vaccine mandatory during its current Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorization period, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told an audience at the Aspen Security Forum event on Friday.

Legally, vaccines that haven’t reached full FDA approval cannot be mandatory for troops, unless the president intervenes.

“That is something the Department of Defense is looking at in consultation with the interagency process,” Sullivan said. “We don’t have anything to add on that subject here today.”

His comments came within hours of NBC airing an interview with President Joe Biden in which he said he would leave the decision up to the military whether to make the vaccine mandatory after it is fully approved, though that would be standard operating procedure.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told Military Times on Monday that he wasn’t aware of any discussions between DoD and the White House as to the advisability of making the vaccines mandatory immediately.

“We continue to be focused on informing and educating our men and women to make the best decisions for them, and their families and for their teammates,” adding that the department is seeing more buy-in as more of its members are vaccinated.

It would be Biden’s call to make the vaccine mandatory during the emergency use authorization period, but Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s decision to require them after full FDA approval.

In the mean time, cases have continued to climb steadily in the military, up to 190,218 service members as of Monday, or 8 percent of the active-duty and reserve components.

Of those 1,669 have been hospitalized, while 183, 392 are considered recovered.

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