About 10,000 active duty Air Force airmen and Space Force guardians remain unvaccinated for COVID-19, according to the latest data provided on the day of the military’s first vaccination deadline Tuesday.
That leaves senior leaders with tough choices concerning the fate of those who have refused to follow orders or are seeking exemptions.
The Air Force and Space Force’s COVID-19 vaccination compliance deadline is Tuesday for active duty troops. According to data obtained by VOA, 97% of active duty airmen and guardians have had at least one vaccine dose, with 95% fully vaccinated.
Asked whether Air Force and Space Force leadership is planning to issue new guidance to commanders now that the deadline is here, a senior Air Force official told VOA, “The guidance (to commanders) is clear. Use all tools at your disposal to encourage your people to get vaccinated.”
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters that 97% of all active duty troops had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Monday, with deadlines for active duty troops in the Army, Navy and Marines coming later this year.
Some exemptions have been granted on rare occasions, including five permanent medical waivers granted to sailors in the Navy.
Kirby said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has asked commanders to first execute options other than punitive measures, but Kirby added that commanders may eventually need to escalate the pressure to comply with the lawful vaccination order.
“I think the secretary has been very clear with the leaders of the military departments that he wants them to execute the mandate with a sense of compassion and understanding,” Kirby said. “He knows, as a former commander himself, that leaders have a range of tools available to them to help troops make the right decisions for themselves, for the units, for the families, short of using the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”
Data provided to VOA from the military service branches Tuesday showed 94% of the Army, 99% of the Navy and 93% of the Marine Corps are fully or partially vaccinated.
But active duty troops are vaccinated at a much higher rate than their Reserve and Guard counterparts, some of whom have deadlines as late as June 30, 2022.
About one-fifth of the total population of U.S. service members — hundreds of thousands of troops — has yet to get a single COVID-19 vaccine dose.
According to spokesman Major Charlie Dietz, the Pentagon requires at least nine vaccines for individuals entering military service, including hepatitis A; hepatitis B; influenza; measles; poliovirus; tetanus, diphtheria; pertussis; and varicella. Up to 17 vaccines are required for service members, depending on their role and geographic region.
Exemptions have been granted to service members for some required vaccines, such as the vaccine for anthrax.