800 Airmen and Guardians Refuse COVID Vaccine by Deadline; 10,000 Remain Unvaccinated

The Air Force released its first snapshot of COVID-19 vaccination compliance Nov. 3, the day after the Active-duty deadline, with some 800 uniformed personnel refusing the shot and nearly 5,000 Airmen and Guardians waiting to find out if their religious exemptions will be approved. In all, 10,352 Airmen and Guardians, including 1,866 who have received medical or administrative exemptions, remain unvaccinated out of a total Active-duty force of approximately 326,000.

“With nearly 97 percent of Active duty Airmen and Guardians having received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, the Air and Space Forces remain ready to protect the nation,” Department of the Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek said in a statement.

“This is a readiness issue,” she added. “Our Airmen and Guardians must be able to respond to situations around the globe and being vaccinated is one of the ways the Department of the Air Force bolsters our readiness and safely meets the readiness requirements that our national security depends on.”

Of the 97 percent of the Active-duty force that has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, 95.9 percent are fully vaccinated and 1 percent are partially vaccinated.

That puts the Air Force behind the Navy, which was 99 percent vaccinated as of Nov. 1. As of that date, 93 percent of Active-duty Marines and 90 percent of Active-duty Soldiers were vaccinated, according to Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby.

Kirby said Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III was pleased with the service’s effort to fulfill the vaccine mandate.

“He’s comfortable and pleased with the leadership that the military departments are showing here,” Kirby said in response to a question from Air Force Magazine. “He’s not unmindful of the fact that in each of the military departments, there are some members who are declining and refusing to take the vaccine, some that are applying for exemptions.”

A former senior Air Force official called the Air Force’s efforts a success. “I mean, if you have 800 people who are categorized as outright refusing to take it out of 337,000 Active duty, … that’s a pretty good success rate.”

The former official said leadership messaging about the medical necessity and readiness was on point.

“I don’t think that COVID-19 rationale is any different than the rationale for any of the others,” he said of the estimated 17 other vaccinations required of Airmen and Guardians.

Breaking Down the Unvaccinated

Among those who remain unvaccinated, 1,634 have received medical exemptions; 232 have received administrative exemptions, such as separation or retirement; and 4,933 are pending a decision related to a request for religious exemption.

Another 2,753 unvaccinated individuals are categorized as “not started.” The Air Force said some of those individuals are deployed to overseas locations where vaccines are not readily available.

“It’s not a large number, if you look at the total force,” Air Force spokesperson Rose Riley told Air Force Magazine. “Not started could include several different categories. It’s those individuals who have not refused, verbally or in writing, who have not initiated a request for an exemption or religious accommodation, and in some cases, these individuals don’t have access to the FDA-approved Pfizer vaccine.”

DAF Total Vaccinated

Active DutyAD/Guard/Reserve
% Partially Vaccinated1 percent3.7 percent
% Fully Vaccinated95.9 percent90.5 percent
Number Unvaccinated8,486Pending Dec. 2 deadline
—Number Not Started2,753Pending Dec. 2 deadline
—Number Refused800Pending Dec. 2 deadline
—Number Religious in Progress4,933Pending Dec. 2 deadline
Source: U.S. Air Force

DAF Approved Exemptions

Medical1,634Pending Dec. 2 deadline
Administrative232Pending Dec. 2 deadline
Religious Accomodation0Pending Dec. 2 deadline
Source: U.S. Air Force

Former Trump administration Veterans Affairs Secretary and Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Robert Wilkie was unsatisfied with the Air Force’s vaccination effort.

“It’s been incumbent upon the leadership to make this a medical and a readiness issue, and instead, they’ve allowed it to fester, and it’s become a political football,” he told Air Force Magazine, laying blame on the White House.

Wilkie said with so much information available to modern Airmen, leaders need to do a better job of explaining.

“There are more nuances in the military today than there ever have been,” he said, describing a blurred line between the civilian and military worlds. “A lot of people in uniform unfortunately seem to think that they’re one and the same, and they’re not. Two very different worlds. Two very different ethics, and two very different sets of responsibilities.”

Wilkie served more than 20 years in the military, including in the Air Force Reserve.

“I was on Active duty for the first four months of this year. I thought the messages were inchoate. I thought that there was no follow through at the lower echelons,” he said. “One-off messages on a video is not enough. This needs to be down to the squad and file level.”

For months, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Air Force leaders including Secretary Frank Kendall, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond recorded video messages and used social media to encourage Airmen and Guardians to educate themselves and get vaccinated.

The Air Force could not provide a breakdown of how many Active-duty personnel have been disciplined, their location, specialty, or career field. No breakdown was available of vaccinated Airmen and Guardians, either.

Riley said disciplinary action for disobeying a lawful order would be taken in accordance with the Uniform Code of Military Justice at the commander level using an escalatory approach.

“I am not tracking any discharges of individuals prior to our deadline,” she said, while noting that nearly 40 basic military and technical trainees were recently kicked out for refusing to take the vaccine.

“There’s an escalation process,” she explained of the Active-duty disciplinary approach. “They don’t just jump to discharge. The commander has to work through those other disciplinary actions afforded to them.”

The former senior Air Force official said there’s been enough education and explanation to those who still refuse the vaccination.

“I think they’ve been given every opportunity and explained the consequences. So, it does come down to a matter of good order and discipline,” he said. “Eight hundred is a pretty small number. I mean, when they assess upwards of 35,000-40,000 new Airmen every year, and about that many separate or retire. That’s a pretty small number that I think could be easily mitigated.”

Members of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve have until Dec. 2 to become fully vaccinated, the department previously announced.