The deadline has arrived for active-duty sailors and Marines to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, but there is still a small percentage who have yet to start the process.
"We will be addressing each case on a case-by-case basis is what we’re going to be doing," said Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro. "We’re just not going to all kick them out on the day of the deadline itself."
As of Nov. 24, 97% of active-duty sailors were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 while 99.8% have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
“What the secretary has communicated to the military departments is to execute this mandatory vaccination program obviously with skill and professionalism, which we always do, but also with a measure of compassion,” U.S. Department of Defense Press Secretary John Kirby said.
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Only six sailors' permanent medical exemptions have been approved and no religious waiver requests have been accepted at this time, according to the Navy.
“For a member who still objects, obviously you can ask for an exemption on religious grounds and you certainly can be exempt if you have a pre-existing condition that your doctor advises you not to get it, obviously,” Kirby said.
Employment and labor attorney Dan Eaton said the federal government has the authority to order servicemembers to get vaccinated.
"The fact is that those who are not vaccinated are not going to be treated the same as those who are, and the question is, how that difference ultimately is implemented," Eaton said. "Whether by way of requiring them to wear personal protective equipment, getting regular testing or being assigned to a different role, or in extreme cases, not continuing their employment at all."
If service members continue to refuse to be vaccinated they could face transfers, travel restrictions or it could be a career-ending decision, the Navy said.
"The coronavirus is moving faster than the speed of law, and this is no exception," Eaton said.
The 13% of Navy reservists who are still not fully vaccinated have until Dec. 28 to do so.
The Army’s COVID-19 vaccine deadline is coming up on Dec. 15, and the Air Force deadline was earlier this month.