Army fights with sanctions for those who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID

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WASHINGTON (AP) – As deadlines loom for military and defense civilians to obtain mandatory COVID-19 vaccines, senior leaders must now grapple with the fate of those who flatly refuse the shots or demand exemptions, and how to ensure they are treated fairly and equally.

The vast majority of the active duty force received at least one shot, but tens of thousands did not. For some, this can be a career end decision. Others could face transfers, travel restrictions, deployment limits, and premium refund requirements.

Decisions on medical, religious and administrative exemptions will be made by unit commanders around the world, on what the Pentagon says is on a “case-by-case” basis. This raises a vexatious problem for military leaders who advocate a vaccination mandate seen as essential to maintaining a healthy force, but want to avoid a haphazard and inconsistent approach with those who refuse.

Brig. General Darrin Cox, general surgeon at the armed forces command, said commanders wanted to make sure they were playing by the rules.

“Because of some of the sensitivities of this particular vaccine, I think we just wanted to make sure we were consistent and fair” by inflicting a punishment that would “be a knock-on effect of continuing to refuse a valid prescription.”

Vaccination rates for the military are higher than those of the general population in the United States, and the grounds for opposition – often based on misinformation – are similar to those heard across the country. But unlike most civilians, military personnel must routinely receive up to 17 vaccines and face penalties for refusal.

The military services report that between 1% and 7% remain unvaccinated. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has called for compassion in dealing with the troops, which number nearly 60,000 active duty members, according to data released last week. Officials say the numbers change daily and include those who were able to obtain or apply for an exemption. They declined to say how many soldiers are still asking for an exemption or have refused the vaccine.

Asked about possible variations in the treatment of those seeking exemptions or refusing the vaccine, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said it was in the service. “Each case will be dealt with specifically and individually as it should be,” he said.

Kirby said on Monday that the secretary did not want to tell commanders how to resolve the punitive measures, and instead hopes they will do what is best for their units.

“So can we promise you that there will be absolute uniformity in all areas? No. And we wouldn’t want to promise that because it wouldn’t be the same way we deal with breaches of orders for other offenses, ”Kirby said.

It is not known to what extent religious exemptions will be granted. Under military rules, commanders can consider the potential impact on a unit’s mission and reject a religious exemption if it endangers performance.

Commanders can also move service members to other employment, deny them overseas deployment, or restrict access to the unit if they are granted an exemption or while an application is under review. These stages may be more common in smaller units such as special operations forces which typically deploy in small numbers.

The Navy has warned that sailors who refuse the shot and do not get exemptions may have to reimburse bonuses and other financial payments, based on existing military justice procedures for disobeying a legal order. Other services should follow similar procedures.

Unvaccinated troops will also be subject to routine testing, distancing guidelines and possibly travel restrictions.

The Air Force can be the test case in some cases, as it is the first to reach a deadline. The more than 335,000 airmen and guards of the Space Force must be fully immunized by Tuesday, and the Air Guard and the Reserve by December 2. Up to 12,000 active-duty airmen and guards remained unvaccinated as of the end of last week, according to Air Force data. . Some have requested or obtained exemptions, others have categorically refused. They have until Monday to request exemptions.

Air Force Col. Robert Corby, commander of the 28th Medical Group at Ellsworth Air Force Base, said after the vaccine became mandatory in late August, appointments for injections at the base clinic have doubled. He said troops have a range of questions and concerns, and commanders, chaplains and medical staff provide information.

“I think you also have a segment of the population that probably doesn’t really feel at risk for COVID-19,” he added.

Air Force Captain Molly Lawlor, chaplain of the 28th Bomb Wing, said a “very small percentage” sought religious exemption at the base. “People are just trying to figure out how this new requirement fits into their belief system and the decisions they want to make,” she said.

The Defense Ministry’s more than 765,000 civilians will be closely behind the Air Force, with a mandatory vaccination date of November 22. Supervisors grapple with the complex task of verifying and recording the immunization status of their workers, and determining who will be the final exemption arbiter.

Civilians have until Nov. 8 to apply for an exemption, and as of last week less than half had provided proof of vaccination. Those who refuse the vaccine and do not get an exemption will have five days for counseling. If they still refuse, they will be suspended for up to 14 days without pay and could then be fired.

The number of vaccines fluctuates for the military services and drops considerably for the National Guard and the Reserve.

Just over half of the Army National Guard got at least one hit, while the Air Guard is at 87%. Members of the Air Guard are due to be fully immunized in early December, while the Army Guard, which is much larger and more widely dispersed across the country, has until June.

The most successful service has been the Navy, which says just 1% of the force went unvaccinated last week – or about 3,500 sailors. The Air Force and Space Force came second, with 3.6% unvaccinated, followed by the Army and Marine Corps with around 7%.

Admiral Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, told The Associated Press that even before the firing was made mandatory, some warships had vaccination rates of 98-99%.

“We feel like we’ve paved the way through the services,” he said. “We have been promoting vaccines since we started vaccinating last December, in January. For those who do not want the vaccine, “we will deal with these individually as these challenges arise,” he said.

Marine Corps Hawaii base commander Col. Speros Koumparakis said the number of Marines who have requested exemptions at the base is less than two dozen, and most of them are asking for religious exemptions .

He said chaplains and pastors have been made available to discuss religious matters and that he is conducting the initial review of any request. But at the end of the day, decisions can be made by the chiefs of personnel at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia.

The Navy’s nearly 350,000 sailors and more than 179,000 Marines are to be fully immunized by November 28, and supplies by December 28. The military, the largest military service at nearly 490,000, has given active-duty soldiers until Dec. 15 to be fully immunized. The National Guard and the Army Reserve have until June 30, 2022. There are a total of nearly 800,000 Guard and Reserve soldiers, with the Army representing more than 520,000 of them.


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