Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, who was confirmed by the Senate in early August, says all victims of the coronavirus pandemic in his department during his watch so far, including civilians, have not gotten the inoculation shot.
"One of the duties that I hate most about my job is that every time somebody dies in the service, I get a message that tells me exactly what happened to them and why they died," Del Toro said during a round table with reporters Friday. "In every case that has crossed my desk since I've been secretary of the Navy, it's been unvaccinated people who've died."
Each of those deaths is painful, he said.
President Joe Biden's new Navy secretary underscored how seriously he takes Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's order that every sailor and Marine be vaccinated. Del Toro has given troops 90 days from Aug. 31 to be vaccinated or get an exemption, and those who refuse could face punishment or even eventual discharge.
More than a dozen sailors and Marines across the active duty and reserve have died from COVID-19, including six after vaccines became more readily available in late spring and at least three in early August. Three Navy Department civilians have died so far in September.
Del Toro's remarks also echo those of Navy commanders who told Military.com last month that COVID-19 is their biggest concern at the moment.
"I have a solemn responsibility to work with these folks to get them to understand that they need to get vaccinated because their lives are important to me in every possible way," Del Toro said. "I don't want to lose any more sailors, I don't want to lose any more Marines, I don't want to lose any more civilians to COVID, for God's sakes -- we're losing too many of them already!"
The secretary's remarks come only weeks after news that sailors and Marines have 90 days to get vaccinated. The order, issued by Del Toro, noted that sailors who refuse will face "the full range of administrative and disciplinary actions."
But it added that, "until further notice," the Navy will not start "non-judicial punishment, courts-martial, or administrative separation" in cases of troops refusing to take the vaccine.
Asked whether the policy left ambiguity or an opportunity to hold out, Del Toro pushed back and said the service's policy is "extremely" clear.
"I don't think our policy is nebulous at all," he added. "We're gonna handle this on a case-by-case basis, but I will tell you, basically, I expect all sailors and Marines to get vaccinated.
"If you can't come to terms with this, well, then you might have to move on," he added.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.
-- Patricia Kime contributed to this report.