94%: In Air Force, Vaccine Reluctance Falls Away as Deadline Approaches

Airman is vaccinated.
Col. Craig Prather, 47th Flying Training Wing commander, receives his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, Feb. 5, 2021, at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. (Airman 1st Class David Phaff/U.S. Air Force photo)

COVID-19 vaccination rates among active-duty airmen and Space Force Guardians have risen swiftly since the Air Force earlier this month set a tight deadline for them to get their shots.

And the quick increase may suggest that -- at least in the Air Force and Space Force -- vaccine hesitancy is largely falling away in the face of the military's vaccination mandate.

As of Monday afternoon, according to the Department of the Air Force's latest statistics, 93.9% of active-duty airmen and Guardians had received at least one shot, with 75.1% of those fully vaccinated.

That's an increase of 3.4 percentage points over the 90.5% who were at least partially vaccinated the previous week. And it's well above the 82% with at least one shot, and 68.6% fully vaccinated, the Air Force recorded Sept. 13.

On Sept. 3, the Air Force announced that active-duty airmen and Guardians would need to be fully vaccinated -- including a two-week period after their final shot for it to take full effect -- by Nov. 2. 

Air National Guardsmen and reservists have an additional month, until Dec. 2.

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The Air Force is allowing service members to apply for medical or administrative exemptions from the vaccinations, including accommodations on religious grounds. But those who refuse the order could face serious consequences, including punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

"We are taking an aggressive approach to protect our service members, their families and their communities from COVID-19 and the highly transmissible Delta variant," Undersecretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones said in the Sept. 3 news release announcing the deadline. "As members of the nation's armed forces, our airmen and Guardians must be able to respond to situations around the globe. Being fully vaccinated will help us safely meet the readiness requirements that our national security depends upon."

On Aug. 30, before the deadline announcement, 65% of airmen and Guardians were fully vaccinated, and another 6.2% were partially protected, for a total of 71.2%. That means vaccination rates have increased by 22.7 percentage points over the last four weeks.

Although some holdouts are likely, the growth in vaccination rates suggests nearly all active-duty airmen and Guardians could receive their two shots by Nov. 2.

But for the roughly 6% of the active-duty forces who had not gotten one shot as of Monday, time may be quickly running out to meet the vaccine deadline. 

Because there is typically a three-week waiting period between the first and second injections for the two-dose versions of the vaccine, and another two weeks for the vaccine to fully take effect, the timetable from the first shot to full vaccination is actually five weeks. That means airmen or Guardians who get their first shots of the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech, also known as Comirnaty, or Moderna vaccines later this week or next week may not technically be fully vaccinated by the deadline.

However, the Janssen, or Johnson & Johnson, vaccine requires only one shot, which would give them more flexibility to meet the Nov. 2 deadline.

The Food and Drug Administration has fully approved the Comirnaty vaccine, currently the only one that commanders can order a service member to receive.

The Moderna and Janssen vaccines are approved under an FDA emergency use authorization. 

The AstraZeneca vaccine has been approved by the World Health Organization, but not the FDA, and is available outside of the U.S. Those three vaccines would satisfy the Air Force's requirement, but commanders cannot order troops to get them.

Overall statistics in the Department of the Air Force -- including active-duty airmen and Guardians, Air National Guardsmen, and Air Force reservists -- are slightly lower, with 86.5% at least partially vaccinated. Of those, 71% are fully vaccinated. Separate statistics for Guardsmen and reservists were not available.

But those numbers also have greatly increased over the last month, from the 65.9% partially or fully vaccinated on Aug. 30.

In recent months, some troops have announced -- on social media, television and other public forums -- their intention to refuse the vaccine, despite the career consequences. Army Lt. Col. Doug Hague, for example, said in a recent interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News that he would not get the vaccine and planned to resign over the issue.

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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