On Nov. 2, the Air Force became the first military service to implement its COVID-19 vaccine mandate, with more than 10,000 Active-duty Airmen and Guardians remaining unvaccinated after the deadline.
Two weeks later, the total number of those unvaccinated has dropped, but only to 9,685, and the backlog of religious accommodation requests remains upwards of 4,800 with a pressing deadline to rule on them.
At the same time, another deadline is looming. Airmen from the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard must be fully vaccinated by Dec. 2, the first deadline for any Reserve or Guard component in the military. While that deadline approaches, however, the Pentagon and the Oklahoma National Guard are engaged in a dispute over whether the Defense Department has the necessary authority to require the vaccine for the Guard.
The Air Force’s most recent data, released Nov. 17, show that 94.9 percent of the approximately 501,000 individuals in the Total Force are at least partially vaccinated, leaving roughly 25,500 Airmen and Guardians completely unvaccinated.
More than 1,600 Active-duty service members have been granted exemptions to the vaccine mandate—though still no religious exemptions have been given—and another 8,068 have not started the vaccination process, either due to refusal, pending exemption request, or other reasons.
That leaves more than 15,000 Airmen in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard who are completely unvaccinated. The Air Force won’t release any data on exemptions or refusals of the mandate for the two components until after the Dec. 2 deadline.
Some of those unvaccinated individuals are likely part of the Oklahoma Air National Guard, which is in the middle of a legal debate over the mandate. On Nov. 11, newly installed adjutant general Brig. Gen. Thomas H. Mancino issued a memo stating that no member of the Oklahoma National Guard, which includes the state’s Air National Guard, would be required to take the vaccine, according to The Oklahoman.
In a statement, Mancino defended the move, saying that while the Guard is on Title 32 status—under command and control of the state government but federally funded—they must follow orders from Gov. Kevin Stitt, who is not requiring the vaccine. That would change, Mancino indicated, if the Guardsmen were activated under Title 10 orders, which puts them under federal control.
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby pushed back on this claim, though, in a Nov. 15 press briefing, saying that Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III had the authority to mandate the vaccine for the National Guard, even on Title 32 status, because “when they’re called up for their monthly training, they’re still federally funded.”
More specifically, a defense official said in a Nov. 17 background briefing that “service members in the Guard have to maintain federal recognition. Maintaining federal recognition means they are part of the Army or Air National Guard of the United States and are available to deploy, be mobilized, and to serve as part of the U.S. military. … That federal recognition can be conditioned upon various requirements,” such as a vaccine mandate.
The official appeared to be referencing section 323 of Title 32, which details how federal recognition can be withdrawn from a Guard member who fails to meet the “qualifications prescribed by the Secretary.”
How the Pentagon plans to enforce this provision remains unclear, however, with Kirby responding to questions on that issue simply by saying, “It’s a lawful order, and refusing to do that, absent of an approved exemption, puts them in the same potential as Active-duty members who refuse the vaccine.”