The COVID-19 vaccine may not be mandatory for military personnel, but service members and employees at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, are finding that their freedoms will remain curtailed as long as they aren't vaccinated.
Col. Anthony Mastalir, commander of the 30th Space Wing, issued a public health directive Feb. 21 spelling out the base's continued restrictions under the pandemic -- an effort to further reduce the spread of the coronavirus and maintain readiness.
However, some of the guidelines, such as allowing travel outside Vandenberg's surrounding counties only for those who have received two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, are being perceived as strong-arm tactics by some.
According to the directive, personal travel for all military service members at Vandenberg remains restricted to San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. But fully vaccinated individuals are exempt and can resume normal leave and pass procedures. Commanders have the discretion to decide whether their approval is needed for fully vaccinated personnel to travel.
Also under the directive, unofficial gatherings are limited to 25 people indoors or 50 people outdoors. Official gatherings are limited to 100 people, indoors or outdoors. Fully vaccinated individuals -- defined as being two weeks past their second dose of the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines -- don't count toward gathering limitations, so they can gather in larger groups or attend parties and events at will.
The U.S. military does not disclose the number of coronavirus cases for specific bases.
The directive comes as the number of daily new cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. has declined 75% since Jan. 12's seven-day average of 229,296, with a seven-day average of 58,530 as of March 10, according to The New York Times.
The average number of new daily cases has also dropped below the averages seen during the second surge of the pandemic in the U.S. in July.
But Mastalir said the threat remains, with the potential of a virus mutation that could "defeat our current defenses."
"It will still take several months before the entire community is vaccinated and we can safely put this pandemic behind us. … Some have predicted infection rates may spike again toward the end of March," he wrote.
Some have objected to Mastalir's decision to split the community into the "haves" and "have nots."
Pam Long, a former member of the U.S. Army's Medical Service Corps who writes a column for the anti-vaccination organization Children's Health Defense, said the directive may violate California statutes that give individuals the opportunity to "decide to consent or not to consent to a medical experiment without the intervention of any element of force, fraud deceit, duress, coercion or undue influence on the subject's decision."
"Clearly, Mastalir's policy has overstepped into coercion," wrote Long in an article in the Defender, the news publication of Children's Health Defense, an organization founded by vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
She added that it potentially violates federal law, which requires individuals to provide informed consent to receive a product distributed under a Food and Drug Administration emergency-use authorization.
Long obtained a memo penned by the administrator of the 30th Medical Group, Lt. Col. Joseph Rountree, saying he would consider travel requests on a case-by-case basis. But, according to the memo, "[Bottom Line Up Front], if people are not vaccinated, I likely will not approve travel outside California." Rountree wrote.
"Military personnel deserve evidence-based medicine that also honors medical ethics. Evidence and ethics are currently being ambushed by compliant commanders," Long wrote in response.
Roughly one-third of troops have declined the vaccine, according to the Pentagon, and officials say the vaccines will remain voluntary for personnel as long as they are distributed under an emergency-use authorization.
That could change, however, once the vaccines receive full FDA approval.
Navy leaders have already openly discussed their desire to make the vaccine mandatory. Last month, Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, commander of U.S. Second Fleet, told reporters that the Navy is "probably going to make it mandatory as soon as we can, just like we do with the flu vaccine."
The service also is allowing ships to relax strict coronavirus rules if all crew members get vaccinated. Current restrictions include pre-deployment quarantining, mandatory social distancing and restrictions on port calls.
The emergency-use authorization designation is expected to last up to two years while the FDA assesses the vaccines' efficacy and side effects.
In a video posted on Vandenberg's Facebook page to promote vaccine compliance aboard the base, the three airmen interviewed for the announcement cited travel as a primary reason for choosing to get the shots.
In response to the video, Vandenberg resident Courtney Dowling described the situation as "really sad."
"This vaccine is NOT yet FDA approved and therefore not mandatory for service members. To withhold their hard earned leave unless they comply and take an experimental, voluntary vaccine is abhorrent," she wrote.
Mastalir said the vaccines are the "weapon of choice in this battle, forged from medical technology 30 years in development."
He added that the new policy has been reviewed by physicians and attorneys to ensure that it is "relevant and lawful."
"Exceptions for fully vaccinated individuals identified in this directive have been found to be medically permissible, legally sufficient, and consistent with the current directives of higher authorities," Mastalir wrote.
Since the start of the pandemic, the U.S. Air Force has recorded 28,736 cases of coronavirus. One airman, Tech. Sgt. Michael Morris, died, although the service said it is awaiting results of an autopsy before tying the death to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.