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Mountain Home Air Force Base Tackles the COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate

Service member injects a vaccine into the left upper arm of a patient.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Andrew Vance, Noncommissioned Officer in Charge of Immunizations, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a patient on Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Sept. 30, 2021. The 366th Fighter Wing has helped limit the spread of COVID-19 by following CDC guidelines, wearing masks on and off base, and providing vaccinations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Krista Reed Choate)

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho --

The mission of the United States Air Force is airpower, anytime and anywhere. Airmen are expected to respond to situations around the world, even during a pandemic. By being fully vaccinated, service members maintain mission readiness without location restrictions. The United States military is committed to mission readiness, agility, and the health of service members and their families. On Aug. 24, 2021, the Pentagon mandated that all U.S. military service members be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Nov. 2, 2021.

Pfizer’s COVID-19 BioNTech/Comirnaty vaccine is currently the only approved vaccination by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but not the only option available to comply with the mandate. Service members may voluntarily choose to receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine series or the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, but still must comply with the deadlines.

“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,” said Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones in an AF.mil article. “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 on.”

During a recent town hall, U.S. Air Force Col. Ernesto DiVittorio, 366th Fighter Wing commander, emphasized his COVID-19 priorities to “preserve the Gunfighter mission, protect all Gunfighters active duty, civilians and their families, and to keep calm.”

The 366th Fighter Wing has helped limit the spread of COVID by following Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, wearing masks on and off base, and abiding by mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for all active-duty service members. Before the mandate, Mountain Home Air Force Base had one of Air Combat Command’s highest vaccination rates.

In terms of how the wing operated to meet the vaccine mandate requirements and timeline, DiVittorio required all active-duty service members to receive required vaccinations by Oct. 19, 2021.

To accomplish this, squadron commanders reinforced the order to unvaccinated active-duty service members within their respective units. This included direction to attend one of two mass education briefings, where attendees learned about the FDA approved vaccine; the processes for medical waivers and religious accommodations; and potential legal actions for refusal.

After the mass briefings members attended an assigned Point of Dispensing appointment where they formally indicated whether they would receive the vaccine, apply for a medical waiver or religious accommodation, or refuse to obey the lawful order.

Religious accommodations for the vaccine may be requested when a service member believes that a policy, practice or duty conflicts with their religious beliefs. The religious accommodation process is similar to when individuals request to wear religious headgear while in uniform or require religious dietary accommodations. The DAFI 52-201 recommends religious accommodation requests to be approved unless the request would have a real adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, health or safety.

“Chaplains and the base-wide Religious Resolution Team are considering each request individually, and we are devoting a significant amount of time to ensuring each Airman has the opportunity to pursue this process,” said U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Trent Lockhart, 366th FW chaplain. “The Chapel Corps exists to support all members’ right to religious free exercise, and we extend the same care and consideration to all, regardless of their spiritual, faith and belief background.”

Coronavirus is overwhelming hospitals around the world, not just in Idaho. With the Delta Variant, more aggressive approaches are required to battle the mutating virus. Vaccine mandates are not uncommon.

When entering the military, service members are given a series of vaccinations, vaccinated annually, and vaccinated before deployments.

“The benefits of the vaccine are immense and the risks are very low,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Alexander Reynolds, 366th Fighter Wing public health emergency officer. “By vaccinating broadly, we can focus our efforts back on the mission and decrease rates of hospitalization or death, as well as protect our community and civilian partners.”

Over 5 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses have been given worldwide. The vaccines underwent the most extensive safety monitoring studies in U.S. history while scientists continue to monitor and reassure their safety. Vaccines are an important part of protection, and allow service members to complete their global missions.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” said Reynolds. “If they can take something that has a very low risk and very high benefit, that would help get the mission done.”

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