Over 3 percent of active-duty Air Force personnel did not get fully vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19 or get approved for an exemption, the military service announced a day after its COVID-19 vaccine mandate deadline.
The members were given until Nov. 2 to be fully vaccinated against the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, which causes COVID-19.
The bulk of the force, or 95.9 percent, are fully vaccinated. Another 1 percent are partially vaccinated.
“I am incredibly proud of our airmen for coming together and getting vaccinated,” JoAnne Bass, chief master sergeant of the Air Force, said in a statement. “This is about readiness and ensuring our Air Force can continue to defend the homeland.”
“The secretary is pleased by the level of effort that military departments have taken to enact this mandatory vaccination regimen,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington, referring to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Any active-duty personnel who aren’t fully vaccinated are required to get tested for COVID-19 at least weekly, the Air Force announced.
The unvaccinated include 800 who refused to get a shot, 2,753 who have not started a COVID-19 vaccination regimen, and 4,933 who have religious exemptions under review.
Zero religious accommodation requests have been granted as of yet.
“To be frank, I think it’s highly illegal,” R. Davis Younts, a lawyer representing military members seeking accommodations, told The Epoch Times. He cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Supreme Court precedent. “What we’re seeing so far is blanket denials,” he added.
Most of the approved exemptions, over 1,800, were for medical reasons. About 12 percent were for administrative reasons, which include upcoming retirements.
Religious accommodations are determined by commanders. The Air Force has 30 business days to process requests. The force’s surgeon general determines appeals with inputs from the chaplain and staff judge advocate.
On Oct. 29, a federal judge ordered that Pentagon officials must explain in detail how troops can apply for a religious exemption, the procedure for resolving the request, the criteria by which applications are judged, and the procedure used to judge them. That information has largely been shielded from public view.
Anthony Kuhn, managing partner with Tully Rinckey, said the Air Force hasn’t denied or approved accommodation requests lodged by the law firm’s clients.
“We’ve submitted quite a few and they’re just getting action. In my opinion, they’re scared to process them because they’re going to have to grant some of the accommodations and they were waiting until the deadline passed so that they didn’t drive more service members to request the accommodations,” Kuhn told The Epoch Times.
Military leaders say the vaccine mandates were necessary to protect service members against COVID-19, especially after the CCP virus Delta variant became dominant in the United States. As of this week, 139 Air Force members have died from COVID-19. Over 73,000 have contracted the disease and over 72,000 have recovered.
“After careful consultation with medical experts and military leadership, and with the support of the president, I have determined that mandatory vaccination against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is necessary to protect the force and defend the American people,” Austin wrote in a memorandum in late August.
COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths rose across the country over the summer and into the fall, but have since dropped sharply. Still, the military has kept the mandate deadlines, which differ from branch to branch, in place.
Critics say the mandates and the way they were imposed could cause greater harm than COVID-19, which primarily affects the elderly or otherwise infirm.
“They claim that their compelling purpose is mission readiness; they have to protect the force. But for some reason, everybody is failing to understand that this is going to be far more detrimental than COVID would have ever been,” Kuhn said.
Refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine and not having an approved accommodation opens up personnel to punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), a spokesperson told The Epoch Times via email on Tuesday.
“Military commanders retain the full range of disciplinary options available to them under Article 92 of the UCMJ and must consult with their servicing staff judge advocate for additional guidance on vaccination non-compliance.”
The maximum punishment for a violation or failure to obey lawful general order or regulation under UCMJ Article 92 is dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for two years, according to Gary Myers, Daniel Conway & Associates, a law firm that specializes in defending service members.
Air Force civilians have until Nov. 22 to be fully vaccinated. Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve members have until Dec. 2.
According to the Air Force, there are approximately 326,000 active-duty airmen and guardians. The total force is approximately 501,000.