The U.S. Navy is set to discharge sailors who have refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but sailors can still stay in the service if they change their minds.
The announcement comes after the Air Force confirmed earlier this week that it has discharged 27 of its members over COVID-19 vaccine refusal.
In a formal guidance on Wednesday to commanders, the Navy outlined how to carry out “administrative separation” of service members who refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
“In order to ensure a fully vaccinated force, U.S. Navy policy is, first, that all Navy service members receive the vaccine as directed and, second, that any who refuse the vaccine be processed for separation at the earliest possible opportunity,” Vice Adm. John B. Nowell, Jr., the chief of naval personnel, said in a statement.
“The least favorable characterization of service for Navy service members refusing the vaccine, without extenuating circumstances, will be GENERAL (under honorable conditions),” he added.
According to the guidance, for Navy members who are approved to retire or voluntarily leave the service by June 1, 2022, they can do so through an expedited process which would result in an honorable discharge, if there are no extenuating circumstances.
For those not eligible to retire or voluntarily leave the service by June 1, 2022, and don’t have an approved exemption, they will be discharged on the basis of misconduct for refusing the lawful order to be vaccinated. Those with less than six years of service will receive an honorable characterization of their military service, which means they can retain their VA benefits, including in health care and education assistance. Those with more than six years of service would receive a general characterization (still under honorable conditions), but sailors can request for an honorable characterization.
“Officer and enlisted service members separated based on vaccine refusal will not be eligible for involuntary separation pay,” the guidance states.
Any sailor who has refused the shot can change their mind after the deadline and “still have a path to stay [in the] Navy,” according to a Navy press release.
As of Dec. 9, 5,731 active-duty sailors remain unvaccinated against COVID-19. The deadline for active-duty sailors for full vaccination was Nov. 28.
About 98 percent of the Navy is fully or partially vaccinated. The Navy has approved for active-duty sailors seven permanent medical exemptions and 326 temporary medical exemptions, as well as 124 administrative exemptions
The Navy has yet to grant any requests for religious exemption—2,705 had filed religious exemption requests, which are undergoing review. Sailors will not be discharged while their requests are pending.
“There are sailors who, in spite of our best efforts, continue to steadfastly refuse,” Rear Adm. James Waters, the Navy’s director of military personnel plans and policy, told reporters Tuesday during a teleconference, reported Stripes.com. “Personally, it disheartens me to see any sailors leave because they refuse the vaccine.”
The Navy has reported over 50,000 cases of COVID-19 among active-duty members; 49,507 have recovered and 16 have died.