Navy Boots First Batch of COVID-19 Vaccine Refusers

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A photo of a COVID-19 vaccine sign
A photo of a COVID-19 vaccine sign at Naval Medical Center San Diego’s Central Immunizations Clinic Jan. 13, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Erwin Jacob V. Miciano)

The U.S. Navy has discharged a first group of 20 sailors who refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19, the service announced Wednesday.

The 20 were all discharged as "Entry Level Separations," meaning that they had recently enlisted and were booted within 180 days of beginning service. These separations mark the start of the promised consequences for active-duty sailors who refused to get fully vaccinated by the Navy's deadline of Nov. 28.

Officials previously have told reporters that they anticipate most sailors who are leaving the service will separate by June 1.

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According to the latest update, the Navy currently has 5,268 unvaccinated sailors and has received 3,009 requests for religious accommodation. To date, none of the military services has granted a religious accommodation request for the COVID-19 vaccine.

In contrast, the Marine Corps announced that it has discharged 45 Marines in the last week alone for vaccine refusal. The Corps has discharged 251 Marines since it began the separations the week of Dec. 16.

The discharges come at a tricky time for the Navy and the Pentagon's enforcement of the vaccine mandate. This week, a federal judge in Texas ordered the Navy to pause disciplinary procedures against 35 SEALs for refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine.

However, the order only halts proceedings against the 35 defendants -- it does not apply to the Navy or military overall.

The Navy made clear in November that it planned to discharge sailors who rejected the COVID-19 vaccine. As part of that plan, it created a COVID Consolidated Disposition Authority to oversee separations.

More recently, Navy leaders said that they would be willing to work with sailors who change their mind and get the vaccine despite having missed the deadline.

"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 mid-December. "And if a sailor gets their shot, we will honor that and make every effort to retain them."

The Navy and the Pentagon have also signaled that a mandate for booster shots could be on the horizon.

As part of its response to an outbreak of COVID-19 aboard the littoral combat ship USS Milwaukee, the service offered and recommended booster shots to the rest of the crew. A Navy message released Dec. 22 noted that, while booster shots are "not mandatory," they are "strongly recommended."

"Because all studies are converging on the need for a vaccine booster to ensure enduring protection, it is essentially becoming the next-shot in a series and will likely become mandatory in the near future," the message added.

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

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