Thousands of Navy Sailors Face Being Discharged Over Vaccine Refusal

Thousands of sailors face being discharged from the U.S. Navy as the deadline for getting COVID-19 vaccines approaches.

The Navy's deadline for active-duty sailors to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 is November 28. Sailors had until November 14 to get their second dose of the vaccine to ensure they are fully vaccinated by the deadline.

According to the Navy, 95 percent of its nearly 350,000 active-duty force is fully vaccinated as of November 15, while over 99 percent have received at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine.

However, about 3,500 active-duty sailors have yet to begin the process of getting vaccinated, and about 17,500 won't be fully vaccinated by the deadline.

"In order to ensure a fully vaccinated force, it is U.S. Navy policy to separate all Navy service members who refuse the lawful order to receive the COVID-19 vaccination," Vice Adm. John B. Nowell, Jr., chief of naval personnel, wrote in a message to commanders this week.

Navy personnel prepare doses of COVID vaccine
Navy personnel prepare doses of the COVID-19 vaccine before the opening of a mass Covid-19 vaccination site in the Queens borough of New York, on February 24, 2021. Seth Wenig/AFP via Getty Images

The message defined a Navy service member "refusing the vaccine" as including those who are not or will not be fully vaccinated by the deadline.

It added that the Navy is currently reviewing exemption requests on medical and religious grounds.

Sailors with pending requests will not be processed for separation or face disciplinary action, the message said, but those who are denied an exemption have five days to get their first shot or the process for discharge will begin.

"The least favorable characterization of service for Navy service members refusing the vaccine, without extenuating circumstances, will be general (under honorable conditions)," Nowell wrote.

A general discharge means those service members will no longer be eligible for some veterans benefits and will also not be permitted to re-enlist.

The Navy also warned that sailors who refuse the shot and don't receive an exemption will lose promotions and not be eligible for bonuses and other payments. "Repayment will be required for any unearned portions already received," it added.

Sailors who have been getting assistance with their tuition costs will also have to reimburse the Navy.

Each military branch set its own deadline for service members to get vaccinated against COVID-19 after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced over the summer that he would add the vaccine to the list of vaccinations that are mandatory for the military.

The Air Force's November 2 deadline for active-duty members was the earliest. More than 8,000 members missed it, including 800 who refused to get the vaccine.

The Navy and Marines set a deadline for November 28, while the Army has set a December 15 deadline.

The Navy has had 1,190 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 173 members who have died of COVID-19. "All Navy COVID deaths have been individuals not immunized," the Navy has said.

The Navy has been contacted for comment.