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‘Matter of life and death.’ Army unveils COVID vaccine deadline for active-duty members

The Army said it started implementing the order Aug. 24. Before that, the vaccines had been optional.
Pentagon - AP
The U.S. Army said Tuesday that all active-duty members are expected to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 15. (Charles Dharapak | AP Photo, File)

Active-duty members of the U.S. Army are required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by mid-December.

The Army announced Tuesday that all active-duty units are expected to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 15 while Reserve and National Guard units are expected to be fully vaccinated by June 30, 2022. The plan complies with an Aug. 24 memo from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin that mandated COVID-19 vaccines for all U.S. service members.

The Army said it started implementing the order Aug. 24. Before that, the vaccines had been optional.

A person is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving a second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or two weeks after receiving one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The FDA in August fully approved for those ages 16 and older the Pfizer vaccine, which had initially been distributed under an emergency use authorization.

“This is quite literally a matter of life and death for our Soldiers, their families and the communities in which we live,” Lt. Gen. R. Scott Dingle, the U.S. Army surgeon general, said in a statement. “Case counts and deaths continue to be concerning as the Delta variant spreads, which makes protecting the force through mandatory vaccination a health and readiness priority for the total Army.”

What if soldiers refuse to get the vaccine?

Soldiers will be able to request an exemption if they have a “legitimate medical, religious or administrative reason.”

“While soldiers who refuse the vaccine will first be counseled by their chain of command and medical providers, continued failure to comply could result in administrative or non-judicial punishment — to include relief of duties or discharge,” the Army said.

Commanders, command sergeants major, first sergeants and officers in Command Select List who refuse to get vaccinated will face “suspension and relief,” the Army said. They would first be notified of the potential consequences, counseled and given the chance to get vaccinated before becoming “subject to removal from their positions by a general officer.”

“Officers and noncommissioned officers who have been selected and are waiting to assume CSL command, key billet or nominative sergeant major positions — some of the most coveted assignments in the Army — will likewise be subject to removal from the list for those assignments should they refuse to be vaccinated without a pending or approved exemption,” the Army said.

Austin issued a memo Aug. 9 announcing that he would request approval from President Joe Biden to mandate COVID-19 vaccination or immediately mandate it once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration formally approved one of the three COVID-19 vaccines available in the country.

At that time, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said it was too early to say what the consequences would be for service members who refuse to get the vaccine but that it would likely be handled at the command level.

Kirby said in August that there are already 17 vaccines required for service members. Military officials have said in the past that refusal to receive any mandated vaccine “could constitute failure to obey an order, and may be punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” the Associated Press reported.

If the COVID-19 vaccine mandate mirrors that of the mandatory Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program that began in 1998, then some military members who refuse the shot may choose to leave the service or face consequences like “lost rank and pay” or “brig time” (military prison), according to Military Times.

Austin’s Aug. 24 mandate came the day after the FDA approved the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for people ages 16 and older. The vaccine remains authorized for emergency use in children ages 12 to 15, and the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are available under emergency use authorization for adults.

“Mandatory vaccinations are familiar to all of our Service members, and mission-critical inoculation is almost as old as the U.S. military itself,” Austin wrote. “Our administration of safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines has produced admirable results to date, and I know the Department of Defense will come together to finish the job, with urgency, professionalism, and compassion.”

What about other branches?

Austin’s vaccination mandate applies to all active-duty U.S. service members and those in the Ready Reserve, including the National Guard. His memo said military departments should use “existing policies and procedures to manage mandatory vaccination.”

The Air Force said in September that all active duty “Airmen and Guardians” must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 2 and that all Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve personnel must be fully vaccinated by Dec. 2.

All active-duty Marine Corps and Navy members are required be fully vaccinated by Nov. 28, according to the U.S. Naval Institute. Reservists must be fully vaccinated by Dec. 28.

More than 1.1 million service members have been fully vaccinated as of Sept. 8, the Defense Department says.

The Army’s deadline for COVID-19 vaccination comes as the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread and spark COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the country — and as more vaccine mandates are being implemented.

Recently, Biden announced a plan to require all companies with 100 or more employees to mandate that their workers either get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. Biden has also mandated vaccines for for all federal employees and plans to require them for millions of health care workers in settings that receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement.