Air Education and Training Command has emerged as a first line of defense for the Air Force amid the coronavirus pandemic, helping ensure nearly all of the service’s newest members are fully vaccinated by their first duty station.

About 45 percent of enlisted recruits are already fully vaccinated with the two-dose Moderna or Pfizer regimens or the one-dose Johnson and Johnson shot by the time they begin boot camp at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, AETC Chief Master Sgt. Erik Thompson told reporters Sept. 13.

But when AETC began offering optional COVID-19 shots to incoming airmen and guardians in June, that boosted the number to 95 percent of trainees who are fully protected against the virus by graduation.

That percentage is expected to rise even higher as the Air Force’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate goes into effect over the next few months.

Thompson noted that the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado and Officer Training School in Alabama, the program for college graduates who want to join the Air Force, are seeing similarly high inoculation rates.

“We’re off to a pretty good start,” AETC boss Lt. Gen. Brad Webb added. “We just need to keep that momentum up over the upcoming weeks.”

About one-fifth of the Air Force has arrived through BMT since the pandemic halted normal training operations in March 2020, he said. Around 10,000 recruits have come through BMT since the beginning of June, when Lackland started offering COVID-19 vaccines.

The process of checking whether recruits have received the slate of required shots, such as polio and Hepatitis A and B, begins at Military Entrance Processing Stations before they leave for BMT.

“If a trainee has already had the vaccination and the documentation to prove it, then it’s annotated in the military medical record,” said 37th Training Wing spokesperson Christa D’Andrea. “If gaps in their vaccination status are identified upon arrival at BMT, the trainee will then receive those particular vaccinations.”

Those who have gotten a COVID-19 shot need to bring their vaccination card to training as well.

Webb noted a spike in vaccination rates since the Food and Drug Administration fully approved Pfizer’s vaccine, now known as Comirnaty, for Americans age 16 and older on Aug. 23.

“You can fill in the blank on whether people were just waiting for it to be mandated before they took it, or whether it was the FDA [full approval] of the Pfizer vaccine itself or what have you,” Webb said.

More than 319,000 Air Force and Space Force troops were fully vaccinated, and another 75,000 partially vaccinated, as of Sept. 15, according to Pentagon data. Together, they account for more than three-fourths of the approximately 512,000 active-duty, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard service members.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Aug. 25 directed the military services to immediately begin a campaign to get personnel fully protected on “ambitious timelines.”

Active-duty airmen and guardians must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 2, followed by those in the Guard and Reserve on Dec. 2, the Air Force said. Troops can seek exemptions for limited reasons, including religious objections and health concerns.

That means those on active duty must get their first dose of Pfizer’s vaccine by Sept. 28 to meet the Nov. 2 deadline. Pfizer’s product is the only COVID-19 vaccine the FDA has fully approved so far, but airmen and guardians can also start the six-week Moderna shot clock by Sept. 21 or get the single Johnson & Johnson shot by Oct. 19 to avoid punishment. The FDA approved all three for emergency use.

“Any refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, absent an approved exemption or accommodation, may be punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” the Air Force added. “Military commanders retain the full range of disciplinary options available to them under the UCMJ.”

Webb said that because the mandate is so new, “we’re not even really close to [kicking anyone out]” of BMT for refusing to get vaccinated. There will be a grace period of sorts, he said, while the Air Force tries to convince recruits to protect themselves and others.

“There’s a whole methodology that we’re going to go through from an education standpoint and communication standpoint,” Webb said. “We will for sure comply with the directive, but there’s a lot of steps in between that and going, ‘We have no other choice, but you’re gonna have to go.’”

Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), the Washington Post, and others.

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