The Air Force has told civilian staff they face a Nov. 22 deadline to be vaccinated against COVID-19, becoming the first service to issue a deadline for its civilians and matching a White House schedule for federal employees as the Pentagon works on a plan for enforcing the mandate.
The deadline notice was sent out earlier this month by Air Force Under Secretary Gina Ortiz Jones in an internal memo obtained by Military.com. It was one of the first steps by the services toward hitting the date set by the Biden administration for all federal workers to be inoculated. Other branches of the military have yet to announce whether they intend to follow the White House's deadline, with the potential that they could pick an earlier date.
But enforcing the mandate for all of the Defense Department's 700,000 or so civilians -- the largest contingent in the federal government -- looms as a challenge, as many are still working from home and some may resist the shot. And the Pentagon has yet to finalize the rules and what may happen to those who refuse. The Department of the Air Force, which includes the Space Force, has about 200,000 civilian employees, according to Rand Corp.
The Jones memo reiterated the vaccination deadline spelled out by the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force, which is led by the White House's pandemic response team, according to Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman.
After lagging vaccination rates this summer, President Joe Biden announced all federal employees would be required to get the COVID shot, and the White House has since issued guidance saying all agencies, including the Defense Department, must move "as quickly as possible" to make sure all employees are inoculated.
Monitoring and testing of civilians were expected to begin this fall, as well as an effort to monitor contractors, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said earlier this month. The Pentagon is expected to announce the plan soon, according to top spokesman John Kirby.
"Following publication of the president's EOs [executive orders] requiring civilian employee vaccination, DoD is in the process of updating its policies to implement these requirements," Maj. Cesar Santiago-Santini, a Pentagon spokesman, wrote in an email Friday.
For now, how the department will monitor hundreds of thousands of employees and who will pay for testing remain open questions.
"Agencies are no longer required to establish a screening testing program for employees or onsite contractor employees who are not fully vaccinated, although they may do so," according to a September update from the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force.
Defense contractors also will be required to take the shot. Any federal contractor working onsite and unvaccinated before the deadline must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within the past three days before entering a federal building, according to the task force.
So far, the Department of the Air Force appears to be the first branch of the military to widely push the deadline while waiting for a unified plan from Pentagon leadership. The Army and Navy reported no similar notifications when reached for comment.
"COVID-19 vaccines are readily available to Department of the Army civilian employees, and we encourage all to comply with the President's directive," Lt. Col. Terence Kelley, an Army spokesman, wrote in an email. "As we receive implementation guidance from the Department of Defense, we will issue further guidelines to our civilian employees."
All services have now set mandatory deadlines for service members to be vaccinated following an order in August from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and have warned of potential punishment and even separation if troops refuse without a legitimate exemption.
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.