American army officers who refuse to be vaccinated against the coronavirus could be suspended from their duties and possibly discharged, the US Army said on Tuesday.
After the Food and Drug Administration fully approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in August, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin had ordered that all active duty service members must get vaccinated.
The Army said it had begun implementing this order in late August, adding that soldiers could request an exemption on legitimate medical, religious or administrative grounds.
However, commanders, command sergeants major, first sergeants and officers in Command Select List positions who refuse to be vaccinated and are not pending an exemption request would face suspension and relief if they refuse to comply, the Army said in a statement.
"While soldiers who refuse the vaccine will first be counseled by their chain of command and medical providers, continued failure to comply could result in administrative or non-judicial punishment – to include relief of duties or discharge," it said.
"This is quite literally a matter of life and death for our soldiers, their families and the communities in which we live," US Army Surgeon General Raymond Scott Dingle said, citing concern over the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant.
As of last week, the US Department of Defense had reported over 353,000 COVID-19 cases across its personnel and more than 450 deaths.
The Army now expects its active duty units to be fully vaccinated by December 15, and its Reserve and National Guard units by June 30 of next year.