The nation’s military defense understandably takes a leading priority in public spending. But congressional Republicans have managed to put plenty of unpalatable elements into a Brobdingnagian appropriations bill that affirms an extreme view, undercutting the value of service personnel protecting themselves from deadly infections.
Over the objections of Pentagon brass and the White House, GOP members threatened to torpedo an $858 billion military spending bill unless the nation rolled back a requirement for U.S. troops to receive the coronavirus vaccine to serve.
The New York Times quoted Kevin McCarthy, the aspiring next House speaker and a California Republican (shown above), as saying this about GOP efforts to eliminate the vaccine mandate:
“’Make no mistake: This is a win for our military,’ Mr. McCarthy said in a statement, adding that when his party takes over, ‘the real work begins; the new House Republican majority will work to finally hold the Biden Administration accountable and assist the men and women in uniform who were unfairly targeted by this administration.’”
The newspaper reported this about the Republicans’ obsession with the coronavirus shot, as opposed to other vaccinations required of U.S. forces:
“Service members are required to be vaccinated against a whole host of viruses. Starting in basic training, recruits receive shots protecting them from hepatitis A and B; the flu; measles, mumps, and rubella; meningococcal disease; polio; tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis; and chickenpox, in addition to Covid-19, according to the Defense Health Agency, which oversees health care for the armed forces. Across the armed services, a vast majority of service members are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and nearly all are at least partially inoculated. But thousands of troops were discharged for refusing to take the vaccine.”
Respiratory illnesses surging anew
The Republicans’ furious opposition to the Covid shot is occurring even as public health officials have urged regular folks from coast to coast to get the latest coronavirus booster, pronto, if they are eligible. (Young children just became so, federal officials have decided.) That’s because doctors and hospitals say the nation is experiencing a tripledemic — an early, annual flu season as virulent as has been seen in years, a fierce outbreak of RSV, especially among kids, and persistent, pernicious coronavirus cases, which are part of the unrelenting pandemic.
The pandemic has killed an estimated 1.1 million Americans and infected 100 million of us, the federal Centers of Disease Control and Prevention has reported. Hospitals say that 30,000 patients daily on average suffer severe enough coronavirus cases to require institutional care, with 300 people dying each day on average of the infection. Those numbers likely are underestimates.
Research has shown that the anti-science, counterfactual positions that politicians have taken have meant that Republicans have suffered higher, disproportionate pandemic deaths than have Democrats. The swift, unprecedented breakthrough that saw the creation of multiple, safe, and highly effective vaccines occurred during the administration of a Republican president, who, otherwise, was assailed for a bungled, shambolic pandemic response.
GOP leaders since have made their opposition to efforts to battle the pandemic almost theological. Prominent members of the party have not hesitated to get vaccinated themselves against the coronavirus or to take antivirals and other therapeutics if they have gotten sick.
But a prime message for their base has been to denigrate doctors, nurses, hospitals, medical researchers, public health personnel, and any others who have sought to quell the pandemic. This negative messaging has added to fraught conditions that have amped up pandemic and vaccination fatigue — not only in battling the coronavirus but also other infections, notably the seasonal flu.
RSV is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported. But the disease annually also is blamed for 2.1 million outpatient (non-hospitalization) visits among children younger than 5 years old, 58,000 hospitalizations among children younger than 5 years old, 177,000 hospitalizations among adults 65 years and older, 14,000 deaths among adults 65 years and older, and 100–300 deaths in children younger than 5 years old.
As for the flu, federal officials say, it kills more than 50,000 people on average each year. The flu and its related lung and heart complications hospitalizes on average 200,000 patients annually, studies indicate. Officials say the vaccine for the 2022 seasonal flu is proving to be an excellent match for circulating strains, making the shot safe and effective.
Despite cajoling by public health officials and others for regular folks to get flu and coronavirus shots, vaccine uptake has fallen off and remains low. This reality distresses clinicians and others who say that the public should get vaccinated to not only reduce their risk of illness serious enough to require hospitalization or to cause death but also to reduce the possibility of significant complications — including the possibility of suffering long Covid, which is debilitating as many as 15 million people with perplexing and persistent health problems.
Service personnel are not immune to health risks
The U.S. military, by the way, has been far from immune from the pandemic’s harms, according to reporting by the Military Times, which says that officials know of 451,600 coronavirus cases among military members and 96 deaths.
Considerable international attention zeroed in during the pandemic on how destructive an unchecked infection could be on military readiness, a study by the independent, nonpartisan RAND Corporation think tank found, reporting:
“[T]he U.S. Navy scrambled to react to the sweeping effects of the early months of the coronavirus pandemic and take steps to mitigate longer-term effects even as the service continued to meet its mission requirements. The early outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt and how that situation was handled received a great deal of public attention. It illuminated fissures in the Navy’s readiness to respond to major medical events.”
As CNN reported of the later investigation of pandemic harms to naval readiness and the health of forces living and working in close quarters at sea:
“The USS Theodore Roosevelt was one of only two ships to go through a coronavirus outbreak while at sea. The carrier had just finished a port call in Vietnam when the ship’s first case of Covid-19 was diagnosed on March 24 . Within weeks, more than 1,000 members of the ship’s 4,900-member crew also tested positive, prompting the Navy to evacuate most of the crew to Guam. The other ship to go through an outbreak at sea was the USS Kidd, a destroyer carrying out counter-narcotic operations in the eastern Pacific when the first coronavirus case was reported on April 22. Six days later, the destroyer arrived at Naval Base San Diego to receive medical care for the crew. The Navy has not revealed how many of the ship’s 330-member crew tested positive, but the inspector general report said the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Kidd had the highest number of cases relative to crew size. In January, approximately a dozen sailors from the destroyer USS Chafee tested positive for the virus, a Navy official said. Those sailors and approximately 40 others were in close contact isolated off the ship in San Diego as the ship’s entire crew was tested.”
Administration officials have grumbled about the GOP vaccine mandate rollback, warning GOP lawmakers that they should be ready to be accountable for severe illnesses and deaths that may result — among service personnel as well as among families and in military communities.
The defense bill, by the way, is so leviathan that it contains other components or provokes comparisons upsetting to those with the policy temerity to question the massive military spending. Led, again, by Republicans, the bill boosts the military budget 8% more or $45 billion higher than even what the administration sought.
To put that giant, extra budget dollop in perspective, it is not quite four times the $12 billion that advocates say it would cost the country to restore and expand a brief-lived child tax credit that economists estimated lifted 3 million children out of poverty. The added military funding alone is five times the $9.2 billion that the administration has begged Congress to provide (and which Republicans have snubbed) to sustain the battle against the pandemic, especially to provide public support for coronavirus vaccination programs.
By the way, is it worth mentioning that somehow a military spending bill also includes important new security measures for the federal judiciary — but with concerning elements that critics say also may shield the political maneuverings of judicial office holders’ spouses and domestic partners (see the controversies involving Ginni Thomas, wife of Justice Clarence Thomas)?
Good, golly. In my practice, I not only see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the clear benefits they can reap by staying healthy and far away from the U.S. health care system. It is, according to research conducted in pre-coronavirus pandemic times, fraught with medical error, preventable hospital acquired illnesses and deaths, and misdiagnoses.
Be safe during as viruses rage
If you have been fortunate enough to avoid grim experiences with the coronavirus, why take risks with the flu, RSV, or even the common cold at a time, again, when medical services will be stressed and health workers, already exhausted, will be under great strain?
Talk to your doctors and pediatricians. Get yourself and those you love, especially the kids, vaccinated against preventable, contagious diseases. If you or those you know and love get sick, please stay home. Encourage all you know to practice the basic hygienic measures that folks so recently obsessed about, including hand washing and covering the mouth and nose when sneezing and coughing. Don’t hesitate to keep wearing face masks and consider whether it may be wise to forgo some or all the heavy, seasonal socializing, especially in confined, poorly ventilated spaces.
We have much work to do to ensure our individual and collective health, especially by taking all the savvy steps we can to finally quell the pandemic and to ensure that other fast-spreading and more common contagions do not inflict excessive harms.