WASHINGTON — Attorneys representing military members concerned about the vaccine mandates expect more pushback following new requirements by President Joe Biden to increase the inoculation rate amid growing COVID-19 infections.
On Thursday, the president announced mandating vaccines for federal employees and contractors with no option to test out. He also issued vaccine requirements or weekly testing for employers with more than 100 workers.
The law firm Tully Rinckey, which has offices throughout the country including D.C., expects to field even more calls from military personnel seeking to know their rights. The firm has about 12 attorneys who specialize in military law who are consulting clients about their rights to not receive the vaccine.
"They're looking to not have to take the vaccine," associate attorney Chad Lennon saod. "D.C. is a major hub of military and federal workers so we do have a number of personnel calling us from the D.C. area, we see throughout the Department of Defense, the other departments, uniformed services and civilian contractors."
Tully Rinckey has received hundreds of calls from service members since the Pentagon issued US troops to immediately be fully vaccinated following the full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine.
"To defend this nation, we need a healthy and ready force," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wrote in a memo. "After careful consultation with medical experts and military leadership, and with the support of the President, I have determined that mandatory vaccination against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is necessary to protect the Force and defend the American people."
Service members who are actively participating in COVID-19 clinical trials are exempted from mandatory vaccination until the trial is complete in order to avoid compromising test results.
Service members with preexisting conditions who are advised against being vaccinated by their doctors would be exempt from mandatory vaccinations, and religious reasons could make for possible exemptions, according to Pentagon press secretary John Kirby.
Lennon expects clients to file for petitions for "accommodations" with the DoD based on either of the two exemptions. The attorneys would first consult them on possible and appropriate routes to take.
"If someone says they don't want to take it because they don't want to take it, especially with the DoD, they really don't have that option," Lennon said. "Mostly we've been seeing is issues with the way that the vaccine was created, produced and test when it comes to cells or cells used without approval of the person it came from."
A number of the phone calls to the firm has been inquiring about a possible class action lawsuit which Lennon believes could happen.
If there is a request for an accommodation, it usually takes about 30 days to receive a response from the DoD from the time a commander receives the petition, per Lennon. The service member visits a medical provider to discuss the vaccine which will require a follow-up meeting with the commander.
A refusal could constitute failure to obey an order and may be punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, according to the Associated Press.
There are no guarantees in the process and penalties can vary.
"This can be you may not be deployable, you cannot go on mobilizations to other countries, you may not be able to go to training events, all the way to you may be administratively separated from the military which could include possibly an honorable discharge," Lennon added.
Accommodation requests could also be granted while the person is assigned to specific unit. However, if that member is assigned to a different unit, they will have to go through the process again.
More than 1.14 million out of the 1.4 million active military members have been fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, according to DoD data.
A timeline of when vaccines are due was left up to the individual branches. The U.S. Air Force is requiring active-duty personnel to be fully vaccinated by November 2 and for the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve members to be fully vaccinated by December 2.
In a memo from the Marine Corps and Navy last week, active duty personnel have within 90 days to be fully vaccinated while reserve members have 120 days.
The Military Health System lists 17 different vaccines that troops can be required to take depending on where they serve.