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Health

Unvaccinated National Guard members can't be deployed to hospitals that need help

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Across the country, National Guard troops have been deployed since early in the pandemic at food banks, COVID testing sites and at makeshift hospitals. Guard personnel are now being deployed to hospitals in five states including Ohio, which has the fourth highest COVID hospitalization numbers in the country. As Karen Kasler reports, turns out not all Ohio Guard members are available for that mission.

KAREN KASLER, BYLINE: Days after announcing a second round of 1,250 Ohio National Guard personnel deployments to hospitals, a fully masked Governor Mike DeWine and his wife Fran greeted dozens of Guard members today as they showed up at a Columbus facility to learn where they'll be sent.

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MIKE DEWINE: Appreciate it.

KASLER: John Palmer with the Ohio Hospital Association says the troops will join around a thousand others already called up to go to more than 35 hospitals and other health care facilities.

JOHN PALMER: So they're really focused in three areas with medics and clinical support, with the non-clinical support in the areas of food service, environmental services and then transportation, helping to get patients around the facility.

KASLER: But there's a stumbling block. The Pentagon has set a June 30 COVID vaccination deadline for all National Guard members. And though some Ohio hospitals have suspended COVID vaccine requirements for their own employees, Guard personnel must have those shots to be deployed on hospital missions. But the Ohio Army National Guard's vaccination rate is just 56%. That means nearly half of Guard members aren't available. Ohio National Guard Adjutant General, Major General John Harris Jr. says that's problematic.

JOHN HARRIS JR: I would never put a soldier or airman in harm's way without the best protection we could put on them - body armor, helmets. And this medical readiness is the exact same thing. We're putting folks into harm's way.

KASLER: The vaccination rate among the Ohio Air National Guard is around 93%, but their vaccination deadline was last November - not this coming June. Harris has moved up the vaccine deadline for his troops to March 31, but he won't criticize those who are waiting.

HARRIS: I certainly don't want to vilify the people who aren't taking the vaccine. I am disappointed that there is so much conflicting information that makes it a very difficult decision.

KASLER: While Ohio's Republican governor opposes mandates, he's also been a strong supporter of COVID vaccines. DeWine says he's frustrated with the number of unvaccinated Guard troops.

DEWINE: Some of our testing places - 40- to 45% of the people are testing positive, so this is a high-risk operation. You need to be protected. The best way for you to be protected is to get the vaccinations. So look, we're not happy with where we are. We're going to continue to push that with our troops.

KASLER: The 56% vaccination rate for the Ohio Army National Guard is just below the state's vaccination rate of 59%. And it's lower still than the National Guard's national average of just over 61%. John Goheen with the National Guard Association of the United States says he isn't sure why the vaccination rate here remains so low. But he's confident that will change.

JOHN GOHEEN: For much of the American public, getting vaccinated is a choice. In the military, you have to do it. The Department of Defense has issued a deadline. Our soldiers - our part-time soldiers have until then, and some of them are just going to wait close to the deadline. That's human nature.

KASLER: In the meantime, Governor Mike DeWine says there's so much uncertainty with the surge that he hasn't decided if or when he'll try to deploy more Guard personnel.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Kasler in Columbus.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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