Navy Tells Vaccine Refusers They Have Less Than a Week to Get the Shot, or Face Discharge

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Sailors move MREs for those who have tested negative for COVID-19 to promote social distancing.
In this April 7, 2020, photo released by the U.S. Navy, sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt move ready to eat meals for sailors who have tested negative for COVID-19 and are being taken to local hotels in an effort to implement social distancing at Naval Base Guam. (Mass Communication Specialist Julio Rivera/U.S. Navy via AP)

Sailors who are denied a COVID-19 vaccination exemption will have five days to get their first shot or be discharged, according to a Navy administrative message released Monday.

The message, issued by the Navy's head of manpower, personnel, training and education, a three-star admiral, notes that the lowest discharge rating a vaccine-refusing sailor can receive, "without extenuating circumstances, will be GENERAL (under honorable conditions)." 

The Marine Corps released a similar message Oct. 25. 

The update is the latest in a series of announcements that the Navy has issued communicating its intent to vaccinate its entire force.  

After Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin directed all military members get vaccinated, the Navy issued its mandate in September. At the time, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro noted that it would use "the full range of administrative and disciplinary actions" against sailors who were unvaccinated by the Nov. 28 deadline. However, that message also put a hold on separations "until further notice." 

Since then, the Navy's vaccination numbers have risen steadily. As of last week, 96% of active-duty sailors were fully immunized and 99.5% had received at least one dose of the vaccine. According to the latest figures from the Pentagon, this means less than 2,000 sailors, in a service which has more than 300,000 active-duty personnel, have not gotten at least one shot.

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Meanwhile, the Navy has only granted six permanent medical exemptions and no religious waiver requests. A Navy spokesman previously told Military.com that the branch has not approved a religious exemption for any vaccine in at least seven years. 

The Navy has not released information about how many exemption requests it has received, but notes that personnel may continue serving past the vaccination deadline if they have yet to receive a ruling. Those unvaccinated sailors could "be temporarily reassigned with concurrence of the first flag officer in the administrative chain of command based on operational readiness and mission requirements." 

The service has lost 173 people to the pandemic, including active-duty sailors, dependents and civilian employees. "All Navy COVID deaths have been individuals not immunized," according to the most recent update on COVID-19 in the Navy. 

The latest message removes what little ambiguity was left in the service's vaccine policy. 

"Navy service members who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine after expiration of the specified time to commence vaccination will be processed for separation and be subject to the other administrative actions," the message says. 

Sailors who refuse the vaccine will receive "adverse" evaluations that will cause a loss of any pending promotions, stop duty station moves, and cancel reenlistment contracts, a Navy statement explained.

A number of consequences could mean service members will also owe money to the Navy. The message notes that "any unearned portion of current bonuses, special pays and incentive pays will be recouped" and that sailors getting tuition assistance will have to withdraw from any courses and "will be responsible for reimbursing the Navy."

"Notwithstanding the policy to separate Navy service members refusing the vaccine, each and every Navy service member shall be treated with dignity and respect at all times throughout the execution of the policies described herein," the message says. 

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin. 

Related: As Vaccine Deadlines Near, Navy and Marines Grant Few Exemptions 

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