U.S. Naval Academy leadership last week offered midshipmen the tantalizing prospect of looser liberty restrictions for the long holiday weekend in exchange for getting the COVID-19 vaccine booster shot, according to an internal email obtained by Navy Times.
In an email to the academy’s student body — known as the Brigade of Midshipmen — sent Friday morning, leadership promised students freer liberty guidelines based on the percentage of mids who got their third jab.
“Based on the continued analysis of the testing results … the current level of mids in ISO, and the current level of mids who are boosted or post 1 Dec COVID positive, I am prepared to offer the following reward to the ENTIRE Brigade based on our booster level at the end of the day today,” Marine Corps Col. J.P. McDonough, the commandant of midshipmen, wrote.
While mids are prohibited from indoor dining and bars, McDonough’s email pledged that mids could dine indoors and go to bars in accordance with local regulations if more than 94 percent of the student body members got their booster.
Other liberty perks included getting to wear civilian clothes in certain situations and overnight liberty on Sunday ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
McDonough did not respond to a Navy Times email seeking comment.
But according to other academy officials, the liberty incentives boosted the booster take rate.
As of Jan. 7, 71% of the brigade’s roughly 4,400 midshipmen had gotten their booster, according to academy spokeswoman Cmdr. Alana Garas.
“After a vaccine booster evolution conducted last Friday … that number increased to 87 percent,” Garas said Wednesday in an email to Navy Times. Based on that percentage — and despite the increase —students didn’t earn the indoor dining and bars, a liberty radius beyond 35 miles or overnights.
Garas declined to say whether the academy will offer looser liberty in the future to encourage COVID booster uptake, but said that “similar risk assessment thresholds have impacted midshipman liberty policies in the last two years.”
“Liberty is reassessed weekly based on current rates at USNA, in the local community, and associated immunity rates,” she said.
McDonough’s Friday email thanks mids for attending a town hall the day before to discuss the COVID booster.
Garas said the academy does not ask mids about why they might not get the booster “for privacy reasons.”
As of Wednesday, Garas said less than half a percent of the roughly 4,400-member brigade is COVID positive, but she declined to provide specific numbers.
As the Omicron variant spread over the winter break and mids then returned to the academy, leadership leaned on modeling that showed cases would decline if more than 90 percent of the student body got vaccinated, Garas said.
While the Navy has mandated two shots of COVID vaccine for all members, current guidance only encourages a booster.
But in line with evolving public health guidance, a Navy message to the fleet last month said a booster “is essentially becoming the next shot in a series and will likely become mandatory in the near future.”
This month, before returning from leave, mids were required to either provide documentation of a COVID-19 infection since Dec. 1, receive an antigen test if a booster shot was received during or before winter break, or receive a more accurate PCR test if they hadn’t gotten a booster and their initial vaccination series took place more than six months earlier, Garas said.
“Achieving greater levels of immunity has been identified by USNA leadership to be critical in allowing the Brigade to conduct the in-person classes and military training that are essential to meeting the mission of graduating individuals prepared to lead Sailors and Marines,” Garas said.
As the pandemic has ebbed and flowed, mids have at times been subject to movement restrictions and online classes to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.