Thousands of Airmen and Guardians Defy Services' Vaccine Order

Clinical nurse discusses the COVID-19 vaccine with a basic trainee
Capt. Sarah Gilbert, 59th Medical Wing clinical nurse, discusses the COVID-19 vaccine with a basic trainee from the 37th Training Wing at Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center, May 14, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Tory Patterson)

Nearly 96% of all active-duty Air Force and Space Force members met the services' tight Nov. 2 deadline for being fully vaccinated against COVID-19, with an additional 1% receiving at least one dose.

But according to data released Wednesday by the Air Force, a total of 8,486 airmen and Guardians remain unvaccinated, including nearly 5,000 who have asked for a religious exemption; 2,753 who "haven't started the series" or had their vaccines properly entered into their records; and 800 who have outright refused the shots.

In a press release issued Wednesday, Air Force officials said little about those who have decided not to get the vaccinations and focused instead on the 97% who followed orders.

"I am incredibly proud of our Airmen for coming together and getting vaccinated," Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass said. "This is about readiness, and ensuring our Air Force can continue to defend the homeland."

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"A vaccinated force is a protected force, better able to deploy and to defend our interests anywhere at any time," said Department of the Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek. "Receiving the COVID-19 vaccine is a necessary requirement to keep our people safe and healthy."

The Department of the Air Force, which includes the Space Force, has granted 1,866 waivers, including 1,634 where a physician recommended against vaccination and 232 for airmen who retired or separated from the service by the deadline.

The 4,933 members who have requested a waiver based on religious beliefs face an uphill battle: The service has yet to approve a single religious accommodation, according to the department.

The Department of the Air Force has set a deadline of 30 business days for commands to process religious accommodation requests. Under Air Force policy, religious accommodations fall under the category of an administrative exemption, with commanders deciding the outcome.

Chaplains and staff judge advocates can provide input on any appeals but, ultimately, the surgeon general of the Air Force and Space Force, Lt. Gen. Dorothy Hogg, will render the final decision, according to the department.

Individuals are exempt from the vaccination requirement while their request is being adjudicated, but they will face weekly COVID-19 screening, as will all who are exempted from the vaccine, according to the services.

Last month, the Air Force separated 40 basic and technical trainees for refusing the vaccine -- the first known discharges for not following a mandate issued in August by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Air Force officials said in late October that anyone who has decided against following the order and is not seeking a medical exemption or religious accommodation will face disciplinary action under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice -- failure to obey an order or regulation.

The Air Force notified commanders that they can use a range of actions to discipline vaccine holdouts, including reprimands, nonjudicial punishment and court-martial.

Austin has said that he prefers that punishment for troops who refuse the vaccine be left to local commanders, according to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.

"Each service, each unit within each service, has a different set of operational requirements and demands, deployment schedules, [operations] tempo," Kirby said during a press briefing Monday. "The secretary very much doesn't want to be in the business of telling commanders at local levels exactly how, if they have resolved themselves to using administrative or punitive measures, how exactly they should do that."

That means each branch and even individual commanders potentially could choose different punishments for disobeying the vaccine order.

"Can we promise you that there will be absolute uniformity across the board? No, and we wouldn't want to promise that because it wouldn't be the same way we handle orders violations for other offenses as well," Kirby said.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Air Force and Space Force have seen 43,717 cases of COVID-19, and six members have died.

Across the services and components, including the Reserves and National Guard, there have been 250,902 cases of COVID-19, and 73 troops have died, according to data released Wednesday by the Pentagon.

According to Kirby, 97% of the active-duty force had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, as of Monday, including 99% of the Navy, 97% of the Air Force, 93% of the Marine Corps, and "in the 90th percentile" for the Army.

The active-duty Navy and Marine Corps face the next deadline for being fully vaccinated -- Nov. 28 -- while active-duty Army soldiers must be vaccinated by Dec. 2.

"Just in terms of first dosage, there's been a lot more progress, and we continue to see the men and women of the force doing the right thing, which is getting vaccinated," Kirby said.

As of Wednesday, 94.2% of the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Those components face a Dec. 2 deadline to be fully immunized.

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