With One Week to Go, Thousands of Airmen, Guardians Set to Miss COVID Vaccine Deadline

With a week to go until the Department of the Air Force’s Nov. 2 deadline for Active-duty Airmen and Guardians to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, nearly 95 percent of Active-duty Air Force and Space Force members are vaccinated, according to the latest data.

On top of the 94.6 percent who are fully vaccinated, 1.8 percent are partially vaccinated, leaving just 3.6 percent of the force who have not received any shot of the vaccine. Those figures confirm Defense Department Press Secretary John F. Kirby’s comment Oct. 25 that the “vast majority” of the total force have received the necessary shots.

At the same time, the Department of the Air Force, which has the earliest vaccine deadline among the services, will have to deal with thousands of Airmen and Guardians who have refused the vaccine. Out of more than 330,000 Active-duty members, 3.6 percent equates to more than 10,000 Airmen and Guardians. The shortest amount of time it takes to get fully vaccinated is two weeks after a single-dose shot such as Johnson & Johnson‘s.

Those who refuse the vaccine can seek a medical or administrative waiver, such as a religious waiver, to avoid it. The number of service members who have actually obtained those waivers, particularly religious ones, is “very, very small,” Kirby said.

The Air Force has not released any exact number on waivers, but a spokesperson told Air Force Magazine the service will begin reporting the “number of approved administrative and medical exemptions” in its weekly update.

Refusing the vaccine without a waiver “may be punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Military commanders retain the full range of disciplinary options available to them under the UCMJ and must consult with their servicing Staff Judge Advocate for additional guidance on vaccination non-compliance,” the spokesperson said in an email.

The service currently has no plans to release data on disciplinary action taken against Airmen and Guardians who don’t get the vaccine, the spokesperson added.

Service members aren’t the only ones facing a deadline to get vaccinated, though. Hundreds of thousands of civilian DOD employees will have to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 22, and a memo released by the department Oct. 18 spelled out the enforcement process for that deadline, including a five-day period of “counseling and education,” a short suspension without pay of up to 14 days, and finally, “removal from Federal service for failing to follow a direct order.” More guidance is forthcoming, Kirby promised Oct. 25.

“We owe the workforce additional context about actual implementation on their part, and we’ll be having that out pretty soon,” he said.

Under an executive order from President Joe Biden, federal contractors must be fully vaccinated by Dec. 8. During a quarterly earnings call Oct. 26, Raytheon CEO Greg Hayes said he expects that the mandate will cause “some disruption in both the supply chain and with our customers,” according to multiple media reports.

At the same time, Raytheon is “going to work our way through this,” Hayes added. The defense contractor implemented its own vaccine mandate before the White House did, and it has been joined by other major players in the industry who have announced plans to comply with the requirements, including Boeing, L3Harris, Honeywell, and Lockheed Martin.