The Navy has lifted its policy of banning unvaccinated sailors from deploying as part of the wider rollback of the military's COVID-19 vaccination mandate.
"COVID-19 vaccination status shall not be a consideration in assessing individual service member suitability for deployment or other operational missions," said the Navy's administrative message announcing the change, released Thursday.
The change comes just over a month after the Pentagon formally dropped the requirement for all service members to be vaccinated, save for a handful of medical and religious exemptions. That change was directed by Congress in last year's annual defense bill that was signed into law in the last days of December 2022.
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The policy does allow commanders to "implement Health Protection Measures at any time or manner deemed necessary in support of operational safety and effectiveness." It also allows them to restrict sailors' movement "in order to comply with host nation quarantine regulations."
USNI News reported that the Navy's top officer, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday, told reporters Thursday that the service will continue to monitor COVID-19 infections, with a particular emphasis on new strains of the disease.
For much of its existence, the vaccine mandate had been a political football with Republicans questioning, without evidence, the efficacy and safety of a vaccine the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is the safest, most effective way to prevent infection and serious complications from COVID-19. The military already mandates more than a dozen other vaccines, including the annual flu vaccine, for both recruits and service members.
Several lawsuits have been filed by sailors opposing the mandate and challenging the Navy's approach to reviewing the religious exemption requests. The Supreme Court ruled in March 2022 that the sea service was allowed to reassign sailors who had refused the shot and filed exemption requests to nonoperational commands.
Last summer, the Pentagon approved the Novavax vaccine, a version of the shot that did not use fetal tissue in its development or production -- a major factor cited by religious objectors.
The lawyers for the biggest lawsuit against the service said that, after the Navy's policy change on deployment, they were "still assessing the impact of this policy on our Navy SEAL clients and more than 4000 class members" in a statement released Thursday night.
The suit was initially filed by a group of Navy SEALs but later expanded to include all vaccine-refusing sailors.
The legal team from First Liberty Institute added that it was "an encouraging step towards ensuring the Navy does not continue to discriminate against sailors who sought religious exemptions from the Covid vaccine requirement."
However, the new policy hints at the possibility that sailors who are unvaccinated may still face restrictions in countries that have vaccination laws or requirements. It allows the Navy's leaders, "if required by the host nation," to certify "that their unit is 100% vaccinated, those disembarking have tested negative within the required timeframe, or that those disembarking have received a COVID-19 vaccine booster."
The new policy makes no mention of reinstating sailors who were separated from the Navy for refusing the shot or when sailors who were assigned to shore duty amid the mandate will be reassigned back to an operational command. As of late November 2022, the service had separated 1,639 sailors from active duty, 402 reservists, and 32 sailors who were in the first 180 days of their naval service.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.
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