All active-duty Marines and Navy personnel must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Nov. 28, and reservists by Dec. 28, to comply with the Department of the Navy’s latest immunization policy, the services announced in all-hands messages.
The vaccines are mandatory even for those service members who’ve been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the COVID-19 disease but are unvaccinated. Anyone who isn’t officially exempt – either for a medical or administrative reason – faces punishment or adverse administrative action under the Uniform Code of Military Justice if they don’t get vaccinated by the deadline.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in an Aug. 25 memo, ordered mandatory vaccinations for most of the force and directed the service secretaries “to impose ambitious timelines for implementation and to report regularly on vaccination completion using established systems for other mandatory vaccine reporting.” A service member is considered fully vaccinated 14 days after completing the second dose of the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, or 14 days after getting the single dose of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Military officials say the continuing spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease, and in particular the more contagious Delta variant, makes getting vaccinated even more important to prevent infections and illness that risk the health and readiness of military service members.
“Of note, all Navy COVID deaths have been individuals not immunized (one individual was partially vaccinated),” Navy officials wrote in a Navy message, released Aug. 31 and detailing the new vaccination policy. “In consideration of this persistent health and readiness threat to Navy service members, vaccination against COVID-19 is now mandatory.”
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro issued the department’s 2021-2022 Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccination Policy on Aug. 30, which took effect immediately. It applies to active-duty service members, service members in the Selected Reserve, and service members in the Individual Ready Reserve.
“Protecting the health of the force and warfighting readiness is of paramount importance,” Del Toro wrote. “I thank and applaud all of you who have become fully vaccinated. Your action helps to ensure the health and safety of you, your family, your shipmates and your mission.”
“As the faithful maritime protectors of our country in peacetime and war, each of us must take ownership of our readiness to preserve and protect the force, and ensure the success of our mission,” he said. “Effective immediately, all DON active duty service members, who are not already vaccinated or exempted, are required to be fully vaccinated within 90 days and all Reserve Component service members are required to be fully vaccinated within 120 days of this issuance with an FDA approved vaccination against COVID-19.”
The move comes after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Aug. 23 decision to fully license the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine, which previously had been available under emergency-use authorization for anyone age 16 and older. That vaccine, now being marketed as Comirnaty, remains available under emergency-use authorization for anyone ages 12 to 15 and as a third dose for some people who are immunocompromised.
As of Aug. 31, the FDA had not fully approved the other two available vaccines – the two-dose Moderna vaccine or the single dose of Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine – so those remain available under the existing emergency-use authorization.
All Marines in active-duty units and in the reserve component – that’s Active Reserve, Selected Marine Corps Reserve and Individual Mobilization Augmentees – “shall be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, unless medically or administratively exempt,” the Marine Corps announced on Sept. 1 in a message issued by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger. “All non-exempt active component personnel will achieve full vaccination no later than 90 days from the date of (ALNAV 062/21), and all non-exempt reserve component personnel will achieve full vaccination no later than 120 days from the date of” ALNAV 062/21.
“Prior to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, service members will have access to healthcare providers at DoD administration sites to address questions or concerns with COVID-19 vaccination,” the message stated. The Marine Corps will issue additional guidance at a later date for any Marine who’s required to get the additional “booster” shot of COVID-19 vaccine. While the message did not include vaccination policy for Marine Corps civilian employees and contractors, “additional guidance…will be promulgated in a follow-on” message, the service wrote.
“Marines in recruit training will be required to receive the COVID-19 vaccination,” a Marine Corps spokesman told USNI News. It’s unclear whether vaccination would be required before anyone unvaccinated ships to boot camp.
For the Navy, “new accessions will be fully vaccinated as soon as practicable following service entry,” the Navy message states.
Both services’ administrative messages detail vaccine documentation requirements, medical and administrative exemptions, vaccine administration and reporting of any adverse vaccine reactions.
Navy commanding officers and officers-in-charge are tasked with identifying Navy personnel who aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19 and, “in coordination with supporting cognizant medical authority, direct that unvaccinated Navy service members will initiate vaccination with an FDA-licensed vaccine or, optionally and alternatively, with a vaccine approved for emergency use, on a timeline that achieves full vaccination” per the DoD immunization policy, the Navy message states. Counseling will be provided “regarding refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine. This counseling will include access to a healthcare professional to answer questions regarding the risks of COVID-19 and the benefits of COVID-19 vaccinations.”
For any Navy service member who is unvaccinated by the deadline, “their ultimate disposition will be determined by the designated COVID Consolidated Disposition Authority (CCDA),” the Navy message says. “The CCDA will serve as the central authority for adjudication and will have at his or her disposal the full range of administrative and disciplinary actions. Until further notice, authority is withheld for initiating non-judicial punishment, courts-martial, or administrative separation in cases of Navy Service Members refusing the vaccine. The assigned CCDA and specific required reporting procedures and information will be promulgated via separate message.”
A service member who previously tested positive for or was infected with COVID-19 won’t get a pass from getting vaccinated, however. “A history of COVID-19 disease and/or positive serology is not a valid exemption from COVID-19 vaccination,” the Marine message states.
Any Marine or sailor who refuses to be fully vaccinated and doesn’t get approved for an exemption will face administrative action or punishment because the vaccination policy is ordered by the Defense Department and is considered a lawful general order.
“The order to obtain full vaccination is a lawful order, and failure to comply is punishable as a violation of a lawful order under Article 92, Uniform Code of Military Justice, and may result in punitive or adverse administrative action or both,” Del Toro wrote in his all-hands message. “The Chief of Naval Operations and Commandant of the Marine Corps have authority to exercise the full range of administrative and disciplinary actions to hold non-exempt service members appropriately accountable. This may include, but is not limited to, removal of qualification for advancement, promotions, reenlistment, or continuation, consistent with existing regulations, or otherwise considering vaccination status in personnel actions as appropriate.”
The policy does allow for certain exemptions.
“Permanent medical exemptions will be granted only when an individual has a medical contraindication to the required COVID-19 vaccine(s),” the Marine Corps wrote in MARADMIN 462/21. “For COVID-19 vaccination, a permanent medical exemption must be approved by the first O-5 or O-6 command surgeon in the member’s chain of command, after initial recommendation by a licensed DoD healthcare provider, and after evaluation by an appropriate medical specialist when appropriate.” A unit without a command surgeon must submit a permanent medical exemption request to the Director of Health Services, Headquarters Marine Corps, after getting an appropriate initial recommendation by a licensed DoD healthcare provider.
In addition, “temporary medical exemptions must be authorized by a licensed DoD healthcare provider, and may be granted when there is a temporary medical reason for postponing vaccination,” the message states.
Administrative exemptions are those issued for non-military reasons, granted “only when the commander determines that an individual service member has a valid reason to remain unvaccinated, typically for a brief (30 days or less) period,” it added.
In addition, “service members who are actively enrolled in COVID-19 clinical trials are exempted from mandatory vaccination against COVID-19, per ref (b), until their participation in the trial is complete,” the message states. These include Marines and sailors who are participating in clinical trials including a study looking at how exposure to the coronavirus might protect against future infections and identifying any chronic health issues tied to the disease.
The mandatory policy comes as the services have fallen short in encouraging more service members to get vaccinated, something that remained voluntarily as long as there was no FDA-licensed vaccine.
As of Aug. 25, “approximately 58 percent of active-duty Marines have been fully vaccinated,” Capt. Andrew Wood, a service spokesman, told USNI.
The Navy had the highest fully-vaccinated rate at 73 percent of the force; the Air Force and Space Force were at 57 percent fully vaccinated; and the Army was the lowest at 40 percent fully vaccinated, John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters at an Aug. 25 briefing.
The COVID-19 vaccine is the latest immunization required for service members under DoD Instruction 6205.02, “DoD Immunization Program.”