The Navy announced on Wednesday that it has separated 23 sailors for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine even as the service moves to adapt how it deals with the ongoing pandemic.
The latest batch of sailors brings the total number separated for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine to 45, according to the Navy's regular updates. The first 22 were discharged as entry-level separations, meaning that they had been in the service less than 180 days. The latest group was made up of active-duty sailors who received honorable discharges. The service lags behind the Marine Corps which, as of last week, has separated 334 Marines.
Pushing out or shifting sailors who haven’t gotten the vaccine to shore duty has helped the Navy reach a milestone leadership repeated during a roundtable with reporters on Wednesday – all operational sailors have been fully vaccinated.
Vice Adm. Bill Merz, the Navy's operations and strategy boss, credited the acceptance of vaccination by sailors as helping the service avoid severe COVID-19 illness. "We have not had to medevac a single sailor due to COVID," he said.
The announcement of the decision to discharge the additional sailors came just over a week after the Navy released its latest guidance on how ships and other operational units should deal with the virus. The new document is meant to ensure that Navy commanders are following the latest CDC guidance, and senior leaders said it is an "update taking into account what we've learned, our demographic, and the vaccination status."
Merz said that major changes include encouraging sailors to get booster shots when eligible, loosening isolation requirements to five days for asymptomatic personnel, and "thumb rules and guidance on when ... mitigations might have to be increased or might be reduced."
He explained that part of what drove the need for new guidance is the almost ever-present nature of COVID-19 on the Navy's ships.
"We always have a handful of ships that have some small number of positive cases on board," he explained, but quickly added that the cases lead to "very few incidents and symptoms."
The admiral highlighted the move to shorten isolation time because "you can quickly find yourself in a nonoperational ship just because you have so many kids in isolation, whether they have symptoms or not."
Merz noted that the service has seen "all variants on our ships" and specifically the latest, omicron. The senior Navy leader confirmed that the last publicly known outbreak aboard a ship, the USS Milwaukee, was the new, more virulent strain of COVID-19.
"We've had omicron on several ships, not just not just Milwaukee," Merz said, though he would not name any other vessels because "that's just operational data we don't share."
He said that the Navy closely tracks every case and outbreak but was quick to point out that these are typically "very small numbers, and, and really no operational impact."
"It's just an ongoing running gunfight with the virus, but so far away, we'll keep it at a very manageably small number," Merz said.
Despite the prevalence of the virus and frequent reports of small outbreaks, Merz is committed to the Navy's approach to fighting the pandemic.
"We're in the camp that once you declared it endemic, you've kind of surrendered," he explained. "I think there's still much too much compelling evidence that you can manage this thing and you can live without it."
Critics, including legislators on Capitol Hill, have called the military's vaccination mandate and the separation of service members, like the 23 announced Wednesday, for refusing to comply, an unnecessary cost.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., tweeted Wednesday that "these early indications show millions of taxpayer $ will be spent discharging unvaccinated troops & recruiting replacements." Inhofe was citing a Military Times report that the Army estimates it costs between $75,000 and $90,000 to recruit and train a soldier to join their first unit.
Merz disagreed with that line of reasoning. "When you weigh [the cost of retraining a new sailor] with the operational cost of having to tie up a ship due to, you know, medevac, or whatever, it dwarfs it," he said, when asked broadly about the costs of the Navy's COVID-19 policies.
"We have become very consistent at sea again, and I would tell you, if I had to put a dollar value on it, it's probably lower than it was a year ago because of the ability to be able to manage [COVID-19] at sea [and] return to normal operations."
Inhofe's office did not immediately respond to inquiries about his Twitter comments or Merz's remarks.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.