Sailors and Marines will need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in the next 90 days or risk disobeying a lawful order and facing “punitive or administrative action or both,” according to two Big Navy messages sent to the fleet this week.
Reserve members will have 120 days to get vaccinated, according to a message from Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro.
“The Chief of Naval Operations and Commandant of the Marine Corps have authority to exercise the full range of administrative and disciplinary actions to hold non-exempt Service Members appropriately accountable,” Del Toro’s message states. “This may include, but is not limited to, removal of qualification for advancement, promotions, reenlistment, or continuation, consistent with existing regulations, or otherwise considering vaccination status in personnel actions as appropriate.”
His message also notes that refusing the vaccine without a valid exemption constitutes a failure to obey an order or regulation under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
“As the faithful maritime protectors of our country in peacetime and war, each of us must take ownership of our readiness to preserve and protect the force, and ensure the success of our mission,” the SECNAV’s message states.
The Navy and Marine Corps guidance follows the signing of a memo Aug. 24 by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin mandating that all servicemembers get vaccinated and leaving it up to the services to figure out how.
The day before Austin signed that memo, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted full approval of the Pfizer vaccine, sparking the effort to fully vaccinate more than two million servicemembers.
Just less than 60 percent of the force has been vaccinated.
Roughly 64 percent of Marines and 86 percent of sailors are already fully vaccinated, according to the latest Pentagon numbers.
Disease modeling forecasts show that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 “will continue to spread throughout the remainder of 2021,” according to a message to the fleet sent Tuesday by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday.
Data and modeling indicate that the available vaccines will continue to be effective against severe illness and death, the CNO’s message states.
The message also states that the 12 sailors who have died of COVID were not immunized, although one unidentified sailor was partially vaccinated.
No vaccine for COVID or otherwise is 100 percent effective, and breakthrough cases can occur, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Some fully vaccinated people will get sick, and some will even be hospitalized or die from COVID-19,” a CDC site on breakthrough cases states. “However, there is evidence that vaccination may make illness less severe for those who are vaccinated and still get sick. The risk of infection, hospitalization, and death are all much lower in vaccinated compared to unvaccinated people.”
Those who have had COVID before are not exempt from the vaccine, according to the CNO’s message.
Servicemembers participating in COVID-19 clinical trials will be exempt, however.
Sailors and Marines will be mandated to receive the two-shot Pfizer vaccine.
Del Toro noted that the full approval of the Pfizer vaccine “provides additional confidence” in the vaccine’s safety.
Alternately, servicemembers can voluntarily opt for the two-dose Moderna or one-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccines, which are allowed under an emergency-use authorization by the FDA, though both are expected to receive full authorization at some point.
Troops will be considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose, or two weeks after the one-dose vaccine.
“Booster shots are still under evaluation and will be addressed via separate message,” the CNO message states.
The mandatory vaccination drive will be coordinated through military treatment facilities, and the CNO’s message encourages everyone to still practice good hygiene, “cough/sneeze etiquette” and other measures to reduce COVIDs’ spread.
Medical and religious exemptions are the only paths by which a servicemember can not get the now-mandatory vaccine, according to the message.
“Prior to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, Navy service members will have access to healthcare providers to address questions regarding the risks of COVID-19 and the benefits of COVID-19 vaccination,” the message states.
Unit commanders will need to provide counseling for troops refusing the vaccine and whose exemption request was denied, according to the message.
“Protecting the health of the force and warfighting readiness is of paramount importance,” Del Toro’s message states. “Vaccination is the most effective tool we have to prevent widespread manifestation of COVID-19 in our force.”
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.