Up to 12,000 Air Force personnel have refused to get fully vaccinated against coronavirus despite a Pentagon mandate, and officials say it's too late for them to do so by the Tuesday deadline, The Washington Post reported Thursday night.
The situation involving 3% of all active-duty airmen creates the first major test of Pentagon leaders who in late August announced that military personnel were required to get vaccinated.
The Post reported that more than 96% of active-duty airmen are at least partially vaccinated, according to Air Force data.
Pentagon officials, though, have warned that service members who defy the order to be fully vaccinated are subject to punishment, including possible dismissal from the service, or they could be charged in military courts, the Post said.
Members who receive an approved medical or religious exemption will not be punished. Many religious concerns surround the fact that cell lines derived from fetal tissue have been used, to varying degrees, in the research and development of the vaccines.
Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the U.S. military earlier this month said Roman Catholic troops could refuse the required COVID-19 vaccine on religious grounds.
"No one should be forced to receive a COVID-19 vaccine if it would violate the sanctity of his or her conscience," he said.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby this week said that the number of religious exemptions for any vaccine is "very, very small."
The Army and Navy have granted no religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Air Force leaders now must decide how to address "potential large-scale dissent," the Post said.
Troops in the Air Force and Space Force must be fully vaccinated by Tuesday, those in the Marine Corps and Navy by Nov. 28, and soldiers in the Army by Dec. 15, Military.com reported.
Katherine L. Kuzminski, a military policy expert at the Center for a New American Security, said thousands of dismissals could affect the Air Force's ability to respond to potential needs.
"The fact that it's a choice leading to potential loss to readiness is striking," she said.
The Air Force, with 324,000 active-duty airmen, is the nation’s third-largest military service, behind the Army and Navy, respectively.
The Post reported the Air Force declined to produce a breakdown — e.g. how many sought exemptions or opted out because they're nearing an end to active duty — of the airmen involved.
A service spokesperson said the Air Force will release some of those details after next week's deadline passes.
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