Air Force secretary: Vaccine refusers could be prosecuted

The Air Force is warning those who refuse to take a COVID-19 vaccine they could be prosecuted under military law.

Nov. 2 is the deadline for active-duty Airmen and Space Force Guardians to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, with Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve personnel facing a Dec. 2 deadline.

Any active-duty Airman or Guardian who has refused to get a qualifying vaccine by Nov. 2 and has not received, or, is not in the process of pursuing, a medical exemption or religious accommodation will be in violation of a “lawful order and subject to discipline under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” the Air Force said Wednesday.

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“Should a service member refuse to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, commanders retain the full range of disciplinary options available to them under law and policy, some of which includes issuing administrative paperwork, imposing nonjudicial punishment, or referring court-martial charges,” the Air Force said.

Article 92 concerns the failure to obey a direct, lawful order. The maximum punishment is dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and confinement for two years.

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said a possible first step in dealing with those who have refused the vaccine may be a “letter of counseling.”

“If you don’t (follow the order), then you will have stronger consequences,” she said, pointing to the example of a letter of counseling. “My intent ... is to encourage you. It’s supposed to rehabilitative in nature.”

As of Oct. 18, 96.2% of the active-duty population has had at least one shot, the Air Force said. Those in the “total force” — active-duty, Guard and Reserve — who have received at least one shot amounts to 92.8%.

“Thank you to the hundreds of thousands of total force Airmen and Guardians who are fully vaccinated or on track to meet the department’s vaccination timelines,” Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said in the statement. “To those yet to get vaccinated, the order is clear: You have a responsibility to take action now, protect our nation and those we love, or be held accountable for failing to do so.”

Active-duty members should have gotten their second dose of a two-dose vaccine — the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines — by Tuesday, Col. Patrick Miller, installation commander at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, said in a Facebook town hall Wednesday afternoon.

It takes two weeks after a second dose before the vaccine offers full protection.

“Really, what we’re tracking is yesterday,” Miller said Wednesday.

Similarly, Guard and Reserve members will need a second shot by Nov. 18.

Civilian employees should be fully vaccinated by Nov. 22, meaning they need to get their second shot by Nov. 8.

There are medical and religious exemptions available to those who seek them, Miller said. “Know that our team is doing their due diligence to assess those,” he said.

Miller asked those who have not received an exemption yet to not let concerns about the impending deadline “chew you up.”

“Don’t get angry, don’t get frustrated,” Miller said. “Once we get that information, we will arm you with that.”

He added: “Know that we will adjust fire as we move along.”

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