National Guardsman with religious objection given COVID-19 vaccine instead of flu shot

"A very small number of service members were accidentally given a COVID vaccine several months ago," Maine National Guard admits — but victim's lawyer says such a "mistake" is "hard to comprehend."

Published: October 1, 2022 7:37pm

Updated: October 2, 2022 11:19pm

A former National Guardsman who sought a religious exemption to the military COVID-19 vaccine mandate was given the mRNA shot instead of an inoculation for the flu "accidentally," according to the service. 

After refusing the COVID vaccine multiple times and requesting a religious exemption to the mandate, former Maine National Guard Specialist Mathew Bouchard was given the mRNA shot instead of the flu vaccine months before he was to leave the service, he told Just the News on Thursday. 

Bouchard, who served in the military for six years, said he first filled out a COVID vaccine refusal form in April 2021, then again in November when he was ordered to get the flu shot, despite the fact that he was leaving the military two months later. 

When he went to get the flu vaccine, Bouchard filled out the refusal form for the COVID vaccine and then completed a form for the flu shot. 

There were two separate lines for vaccinations, one for COVID and the other for the flu, and there were two separate noncommissioned officers (NCOs) administering the vaccines. While Bouchard was in the flu shot line, the NCO in the COVID line said that anyone needing the flu vaccine could go to his line to get it. Bouchard asked the NCO if he should be doing this, and the NCO changed his mind, so Bouchard went back to the flu shot line. 

Both Bouchard and his attorney, R. Davis Younts, mentioned that it was unusual for the NCO in the COVID vaccine line to offer the flu shot because there are supposed to be different NCOs to give different vaccines. One NCO isn't supposed to give two different vaccines. There are also not supposed to be two different vaccines at the same table. 

Additionally, the vaccines should be labeled differently. Younts noted that while the COVID vaccine is usually in a multi-dose bottle, the flu vaccine is in a single-dose syringe. 

Bouchard then got what was supposed to be the flu shot. After receiving the injection, he was told that anyone who wanted a religious exemption from the COVID shot was to meet with the NCO who was giving that vaccine. 

After Bouchard and another soldier went to the NCO to explain their reasoning for refusing the COVID vaccine on religious grounds — including its connection to human fetal cells — the NCO told them that there were no human fetal cells in the shot and that he had heard the objections before. However, the NCO never gave them an answer about their religious accommodation request (RAR) or provided them with the RAR packet to fill out. 

Bouchard also requested a religious exemption another time but never received the information needed to process it. He said that he knew a lot of people who sought a religious exemption but were never given an answer. 

The military is required to make RAR packets available to service members who request them, and the request must be acknowledged and processed, but the military "simply wouldn't process" RARs in some cases, according to Younts. 

It's "absolutely a pattern," with junior soldiers, "to coerce, embarrass, single out, and lie to them," Younts said. If the RAR packet isn't submitted, then there's no record of it, and the service members won't get a decision on it, he added. 

The day after Bouchard received the vaccine, he was called into a meeting with a sergeant major, chaplain, and others in the chain of command who told him that he was given the COVID vaccine instead of the flu shot. When he asked if this was planned, he was told it wasn't, that this was the first time it happened and the NCO who gave him the wrong shot felt terrible about it. 

After the meeting, the sergeant major told Bouchard that there would be an investigation into how the mistake happened. However, Bouchard said he was never contacted about the investigation, nor heard anything else about it. 

Younts said that he had never heard of a mistaken vaccine switch in the military before and that it was "hard to comprehend." According to Bouchard and another National Guardsman, other service members also mistakenly received the COVID vaccine instead of the flu shot. 

The process for receiving a vaccine in the military includes signing the form for the specific vaccine, verifying which vaccine a service member is there for, identifying themselves by their name, date of birth, and last four digits of their Social Security Number, and then verifying the product. 

For a mistake to be made with the vaccines, proper procedure must not have been followed, Younts said, arguing that for it "to happen different times to more than one person is troubling." 

Noting that there was "no evidence" the Maine National Guard had investigated or provided an explanation for the incident, Younts said it's "a big deal for someone to receive the wrong medical treatment."

If a service member is injured, Younts explained, there is a line of duty determination documenting the injury, for two reasons: for military readiness when a member is still in the service or, following separation, so Veterans Affairs can handle treatment later on. 

For Bouchard, there was no line of duty determination, Younts said. While Bouchard hasn't had any adverse reactions to the COVID vaccine so far and refused the second dose, if he has a complication later, it won't be properly documented in his medical records, Younts explained. 

Military commanders are experiencing "tremendous pressure" to get all of their service members vaccinated "no matter what," according to Younts. "The commanders must account for how many of their members are vaccinated and will be judged harshly for those who aren't." 

With their jobs at stake, commanders could be driven to make a mistake or be tempted "to cut corners or do things that are suspicious," Younts said. 

Bouchard tried to report the vaccine switch as an assault to local police, but they wouldn't take on a federal case. Younts said his client will try to pursue an inspector general complaint. 

When reached for comment, the Maine National Guard told Just the News in a statement that since it is "a federal entity," they "are not able to disclose health information for individual service members."

The public affairs officer apologized for the brief statement due to limited immediate access to information "during non-duty hours," but explained that the vaccine switch was a "mistake."

"The Maine National Guard has not, and would never purposefully administer a COVID vaccine in place of an influenza vaccine," according to the statement. "A very small number of service members were accidentally given a COVID vaccine several months ago during a clinic for service members where both shots were being administered. Those involved were informed as soon as the error was made known, the incident was investigated, and protocols were adjusted appropriately to ensure the same mistake was not made again. 

"The Maine National Guard fully supports service members submitting for religious accommodation exceptions for any vaccination and has forwarded dozens of COVID religious accommodation requests to the next higher level for review. Plans for including accommodations have been a part of all DoD level and state level vaccination efforts."

Regarding the statement on the investigation, Younts said that Bouchard "was a victim of the mistake" and was "[n]ever interviewed and never informed of the investigation or the outcome of the investigation."

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