COVID Bullying at West Point?

Vaccination is voluntary but refusal is not without consequence.

Via memeorandum, I came across a rather overwrought story at the New York Post headlined “Unvaccinated West Point cadets getting bullied and punished, families say.” It, in turn, seems to have been based largely on a Fox News story, “Unvaccinated West Point cadets face growing and severe retaliation, sources say.” Despite the suspect nature of the sources, the basic story rings true but lacks context.

From the Fox report:

The push for coronavirus vaccinations at the U.S. Military Academy began once the first shots became available back in January – but even as the inoculation rate rises and deaths and new cases both fall, the families of unvaccinated cadets say they are facing increasing pressure, coercion, and even threats to get the jab.

West Point does not have a vaccine mandate, nor does the military as a whole.

Still, there are only about three dozen unvaccinated cadets at West Point, which accommodates more than 4,500 students.

The unvaccinated few, many of whom say they have gained natural immunity from catching the virus earlier, face stricter quarantines and other restrictions now than at the height of the pandemic, according to multiple sources. The new limits include a seven-day quarantine for unvaccinated cadets in the break before summer training. That requirement took a full week away from their time off.

“It’s like solitary confinement – for a disease we don’t have,” said one cadet, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

From my own experience working in professional military education, I can attest that a seven-day quarantine is not stricter than at the height of the pandemic. “Restriction on Movement” (ROM) periods of 14-21 days were common for those who traveled from overseas or from high-risk localities. That said, West Point and most other installations had removed this requirement as of late December (although, because we have so many international students, we opted to go remote in the post-holiday break electives period to limit cross-exposure).

And, of course, if you’re not vaccinated, we don’t know that it’s “a disease you don’t have.” Symptoms can take several days to manifest and transmission is possible while asymptomatic. That’s really the whole point of the ROM.

Elita Perusek, whose son is in his final year at West Point, is a 1994 graduate of the academy herself.

She told “Hannity” Thursday evening that her son declined the vaccine but has tested positive for coronavirus antibodies on post – meaning school medical staffers were aware of his natural immunity.

“He was counseled before he left West Point by his tactical office who told him that because he chose to exercise his right to not take the vaccine that he would be called ‘susceptible status’…and that he would have to submit to restriction of movement throughout the summer,” she said. “Which meant that he would have to give up some of his leave.”

So, you’d think a West Point grad would have learned about tradeoffs somewhere along the way. Her son is in “susceptible status” because he chose not to get vaccinated and is therefore—wait for it—susceptible to the disease the vaccine is shown to prevent. The consequence of exercising his right to be susceptible and therefore potentially risking the health of other unvaccinated folks on the reservation is that he will be treated accordingly.

This new seven-day isolation quarantine is stricter than the previous restriction of motion (ROM) requirement that was in place when coming back from other breaks, such as the winter holiday, where cadets were still permitted out for activities including going to the mess hall.

Cadets were required to show a negative COVID-19 test and adhere to the ROM following breaks over the winter and last summer when cases were rising and there was no option for a vaccine.

Aside from the fact that the mess hall is right there on the main campus, it is indeed a fair question as to why the restriction on unvaccinated cadets in a sea of mostly-vaccinated cadets and faculty is harsher now than it was previously. That does, indeed, ring of harassment—or, at least, not-so-subtle pressure to get the jab.

Because of the ramped-up restrictions and the mandatory seven-day quarantine, several unvaccinated students with tight schedules won’t even be allowed to leave campus for the rest of the summer, while their vaccinated classmates can, sources explained.

But, again, that’s life in the big city. It’s perfectly reasonable for vaccinated cadets to have less restriction than those who chose not to get the vaccine.

As recently as last week, documents show unvaccinated cadets were cited with Negative Cadet Observation Reports, or NCORs, for violating mask and social distancing.

They were accused of sitting unmasked on outdoor bleachers within six feet of one another. They were also warned that further discipline would be forthcoming if they violated the guidelines again.

New York State, where West Point is located, has lifted its COVID-19 restrictions – but Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines still urge unvaccinated individuals to continue to mask up.

The school’s specific guidelines for unvaccinated cadets state masks should be worn in the barracks and shared spaces – including bathrooms and showers.

“In shared indoor spaces masks are required,” the school’s public affairs office said. “Identical to the academic year mask requirements, if the shower and bathroom is in a shared indoor space, non-vaccinated individuals are required to wear a mask when not performing personnel hygiene.”

Unless things have changed radically, there are no private bathrooms or showers in the barracks at West Point. So, yes, these restrictions are in exactly alignment with CDC guidance and it’s perfectly reasonable to punish those who refuse to follow orders.

The only time the guidelines don’t require masks for unvaccinated individuals is during physical training – when they’ll presumably be breathing heaviest.

This strikes me as idiotic. But it was the policy aboard all military installations until the day after the radical change in CDC guidelines. Even though I was fully vaccinated, I was required, by order of the Secretary of Defense, to wear a mask at all times aboard Quantico, even outdoors, unless I was out running.

Sources also alleged that unvaccinated cadets are being derided as “diseased” and “dirty” and treated as outcasts on campus despite having concerns about the vaccine’s side effects or having obtained natural immunity to the virus from prior infection.

Vaccinated cadets have allegedly been told to avoid socializing with their unvaccinated peers.

The school acknowledged that such heckling had been reported but said the issue had been addressed.

“Any harassment, abuse, threats, or punitive measures targeting unvaccinated personnel is incompatible with West Point policies, ideals, and Army values,” the public affairs office said.

So, West Point is a collection of 4000-odd, highly intense young people aged 17-22. There’s a Plebe system, which entails a year of rather intense harassment. It’s not the least bit surprising that there is some not-so-subtle peer pressure being applied to roughly three dozen outliers who are highly visible because they’re the ones running around with masks.

FILED UNDER: COVID-19, Media, Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. grumpy realist says:

    It’s ironically amusing that people like Rod Dreher and others of his kind over at TAC love talking about the benefit of social pressure to get people to carry out what is considered “virtuous activities” like going to church, getting married, etc.

    Until, of course, it’s a “virtue” they don’t want to adhere to. Then it’s “bullying”.

    Can’t have it both ways, guys. Goose, gander.

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  2. MarkedMan says:

    I’m glad to hear the numbers are so few. Still, even this small number gives cause for concern. They are going to be officers, leaders, in our military, and yet given all the sources of information available to them they presumably judge the fantasy world of Fox News to be their go to source and exalt it so high above other reality based news outlets that they are willing to put up with extra restrictions based on the ravings of Hannity and Carlson.

    During the Cold War I imagine there were Soviet officers who believed everything they read in Pravda, and I hope their superiors were smart enough never to assign them anything more important than responsibility for latrine construction during maneuvers.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: In fairness, it seems like a significant number of the refusniks are either those who had previously been infected with COVID and figure they are naturally immune or very young women who fear that we don’t know what the long term effects of the vaccines on pregnancy and fetal health are. (On the other hand, I would put the number of ~4500 cadets who are hard-core Fox News/Breitbart types well above three dozen.)

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  4. Kathy says:

    There’s much we don’t know about natural immunity. The reinfection rate for those who’ve recovered from severe cases seems to be 0.9%. That’s better efficacy than vaccination, sure, but we don’t know how long that lasts. We don’t know how long vaccine protection lasts, either, but that’s part of the ongoing trials, and people who volunteered for the trials are far easier to track.

    I’ve not managed to get any data on reinfection rates for mild or asymptomatic cases, or natural immunity resistance to the different variants. We do know the mRNA vaccines, at least, offer high levels of protection from symptomatic disease by variants, and higher still for severe disease (that’s why I was so happy to get Pfizer’s shot).

    While it’s true we don’t know what the long term side effects may be from the vaccines, we do know no vaccines have caused long-term problems. Besides, what’s the alternative? Trial vaccines for 60 years and only then approve them?

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  5. Michael Cain says:

    @James Joyner:

    With any new drug or vaccination there is always some non-zero risk of complications for pregnancies that aren’t going to occur for several/many years, just because we don’t require trials that long before full licensing. What is current military policy in those cases?

  6. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Cain: West Point is a DoD enterprise and follows the same policies: vaccination is voluntary but highly encouraged. And there’s definitely some command pressure to get vaccinated because it vastly simplifies logistics.

  7. Stormy Dragon says:

    I’m shocked that a cadet directly endangering the safety of the unit over some bullshit personal point is generating ill will amongst the rest of their squad.

    They should just be thankful it’s not back in 70s, or they’d probably be getting “blanket parties”

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  8. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Michael Cain:

    With any new drug or vaccination there is always some non-zero risk of complications for pregnancies that aren’t going to occur for several/many years

    This is BS. A few weeks after the vaccination, none of the vaccine is left in your system, only your natural immune response to it. Vaccines do not cause symptoms to suddenly appears months or years later, and anyone who says otherwise is a lying liar who is lying to you.

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  9. Stormy Dragon says:

    Best way I saw it:

    Everyone is going to be vaccinated, whether they want to be or not. Your only choice is you can take the thoroughly tested vaccine made by Pfizer, Moderna, etc. at the time of your choosing, or you can get randomly vaccinated by the untested vaccine that’s killed hundreds of thousands of people.

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  10. CSK says:

    Some of the more rabid anti-vaxxers refer to the Moderna and Pfizer shots as “gene-altering therapy.”

  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    This is ridiculous. Would we make it voluntary if they were being posted to a spot where malaria or dengue fever was endemic? Make it an order and expel anyone who refuses.

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  12. gVOR08 says:

    I’d rather they just be ordered to take the shot, but I understand there are legal issues pending full FDA approval. So I’m glad to see the resisters are being pressured. It’s good to see someone not accommodate these RW snowflakes. I’ve already seen conservatives bitch about the military being woke. And corporations. Maybe eventually there’ll only be two conservatives left in the Republican tent, and they’ll both try to push out the other.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: As @gVOR08 notes, it’s because the drugs only have emergency approval. Both Moderna and Pfizer are likely to get full approval in the next couple of months, at which point it almost certainly will cease being a matter of choice.

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  14. flat earth luddite says:

    Actually, I guess things really ARE different than back when I rode my mule into the Oregon Territory.

    My first thought on this was, how can anyone who’s a West Point graduate be surprised that their sprog are hazed? For any reason? For no reason? There’s a reason it used to be called hell year by people I knew. I’ve never before heard of anyone being surprised at abuse of the plebes.

    My second thought was that this particular batch need to grow a pair of somethings. Stones, ovaries, I don’t care.

    My third thought was that I’m glad to know all the whiney snowflakes aren’t on my left-leaning side of the fence.