Navy will likely counsel vaccine-resisting sailors before moving to punitive actions

The Navy is giving a first look into what might happen to sailors who are reluctant to get the COVID-19 vaccination after the Defense Department mandates the shot for troops in the coming weeks.

Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham, the Navy surgeon general, says the service will likely take less punitive actions before having to resort to actual legal repercussions

“I think what’s going to happen is it will go back to counseling. We will sit down with the individual and try to understand the source of their resistance and address that,” Gillingham told reporters during a Defense Writers Group roundtable Thursday. “Ultimately I would hope that any nonjudicial punishment or legal proceedings would be very late in that continuum. When sailors realize that — yes, the Secretary of Defense has made the determination based on expert guidance and that this is required for mission readiness — I do believe that those who still haven’t gotten the vaccine will see the value and will proceed with getting it.”

To date, 72% of sailors have received vaccinations. The Marine Corps is lagging behind in the high 50% range.

Gillingham said he is confident that the Navy will have enough vaccines to supply shots for all of its sailors and marines.

“I don’t think we’re going to face significant resistance, frankly,” he said. “Right now, the two scenarios that I can imagine where a person won’t be vaccinated would be someone who is so severely immunocompromised that they can’t take the vaccine. That’s obviously going to be a very small number in our active duty, and would be handled by the physicians caring for them. The other is just documented history of having had an allergic reaction to either the first or second vaccination.”

As of Wednesday, 42,908 sailors and 25,330 marines have contracted coronavirus.

Gillingham said the Navy will also follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on booster shots, which was released earlier this week.

The guidance suggests getting a booster shot eight months after completing the vaccine series.

The Pentagon announced it would mandate vaccines for all active duty troops by mid-September or when the Food and Drug Administration fully approved the shot, whichever comes first.

The vaccines have been administered under emergency authorization from the FDA.

“The intervening few weeks will be spent preparing for this transition,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wrote in the Aug. 9 memo. “I have every confidence that service leadership and your commanders will implement this new vaccination program with professionalism, skill and compassion. We will have more to say about this as implementation plans are fully developed.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the military services will be in charge of their own implementation plans based on deployments and current vaccination rates.

Kirby said DoD is working on a policy directive that will go out to service members as a lawful order.

“Adding a vaccine to the mandatory list isn’t something that happens every day,” Kirby said. “It’s a big muscle movement and the secretary wants to give the services ample time to prepare for that, as well as the force.”

President Joe Biden quickly responded to Austin’s message, stating he strongly supports the move to make vaccines mandatory.

“Secretary Austin and I share an unshakable commitment to making sure our troops have every tool they need to do their jobs as safely as possible,” Biden wrote. “These vaccines will save lives. Period. They are safe. They are effective. Over 350 million shots have been given in the United States alone. Being vaccinated will enable our service members to stay healthy, to better protect their families, and to ensure that our force is ready to operate anywhere in the world.”

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