The U.S. Navy is giving sailors who have refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine a surprising choice: You can either start getting vaccinated, weeks after the formal deadline, or get ready for separation.
The service issued new guidance Wednesday outlining the steps ahead for those who haven't gotten the vaccine and don't have a pending exemption request. Officials said they anticipate most who are leaving the service will separate by June 1.
"We want every sailor to receive the vaccine and stay Navy," Rear Adm. James Waters, the Navy's director of military personnel plans and policy, told reporters during a roundtable in advance of the release. "And if a sailor gets their shot, we will honor that and make every effort to retain them."
"On the other hand," Waters added, "those who continue to refuse the vaccine will be required to leave the Navy."
Sailors who are already eligible for retirement or discharge before June 1 will be allowed to leave the service through an expedited process resulting in an honorable characterization of service.
Sailors not eligible for retirement or separation before June 1 "will be processed for separation on the basis of misconduct for refusing a lawful order to be vaccinated," Waters said.
Navy leaders also noted that sailors who are separated will have to repay unfulfilled obligations such as bonuses and education benefits.
According to the latest figures, released on Dec. 9, the Navy still has 5,731 sailors who remain unvaccinated -- about 1.65 percent of its active-duty force; 333 have medical exemptions and 2,705 sailors have filed religious accommodation requests.
However, the Navy is offering sailors one more opportunity to change their mind by still getting the shot.
Waters explained that, so far, 919 sailors have gotten their vaccinations after the deadline, adding that the Navy is "working with each and every one of those sailors in an effort to retain them."
"We'll do the same for anyone else who steps forward to get their shot," he said.
Fleet Master Chief Wes Koshoffer told reporters that in his conversations with sailors he's noticed that those refusing to get the vaccine generally fall into two categories: "The first is a very deeply held fundamental religious belief against vaccination or introducing these components into the body. And the other category ... is just a general sense or belief that the vaccine is not safe."
Navy officials noted that they are not formally collecting any information on why people are refusing the vaccine beyond the overall numbers of religious or medical exemptions.
The service has not approved any religious accommodation for COVID-19 or for any other vaccine in at least the last seven years.
Although leaders stressed that they hope sailors change their minds about the vaccine, they said that the Navy's goal is to have a fully vaccinated force as soon as possible.
"We hire and separate or retire about 35,000 sailors every year. ... We are well equipped to handle the scale that we're discussing here," Waters said.
He said that he expects "the bulk of these separations will happen in the time period between now and 1 June, because we are providing that window for anyone eligible to retire or separate in that timeframe to do so."
"However, we understand that there will be cases that will go past that point," he added.
Koshoffer explained that "for those that do not want the vaccine, that are just outright refusers, we've established a fair and equitable way to part the ways."
"We will continue to treat all of our teammates with dignity and respect throughout this process."
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.