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A week before the deadline for Air Force service members to get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Lt. Gen. Mary O’Brien urged her followers on Twitter to get vaccinated after announcing that she had contracted a “breakthrough” case of the virus even though she was fully vaccinated against it.

“I have ‘breakthrough’ COVID despite being fully vaccinated, with many symptoms … 102 fever, cough, congestion, fatigue, muscle aches,” said O’Brien, who is the Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and cyber effects operations.

“I’m also healthy, normal weight, exercise, eat right, never touched tobacco & wear my mask indoors,” she added in her tweet on Tuesday.

Breakthrough cases do not mean that COVID-19 vaccines are ineffective, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“[N]o vaccine is 100% effective at preventing illness,” the CDC wrote on its website. “Some fully vaccinated people will get sick, and some will even be hospitalized or die from COVID-19. However, there is evidence that vaccination may make illness less severe for those who are vaccinated and still get sick. The risk of infection, hospitalization, and death are all much lower in vaccinated people compared to unvaccinated.” 

In fact, unvaccinated people are five times more likely than vaccinated people to be infected with COVID-19, 10 times more likely to be hospitalized by the virus, and 10 times more likely to die from it, according to the CDC. In a similar vein, O’Brien kept encouraging others to get vaccinated despite her own breakthrough case.

“Don’t assume just because you’re healthy you’ll avoid a severe case – and maybe worse,” she tweeted alongside a link to an Air Force article debunking myths about the COVID-19 vaccine. “Protect yourself and those you love #GetVaccinated.”

O’Brien’s tweets came a week before the Nov. 2 deadline for active-duty airmen and Space Force guardians to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The deadline for Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve members is Dec. 2. For the most part the service is well-prepared: with 96.2% of the active-duty and 92.8% of the total force having at least one shot as of Oct. 18. 

Still, the active-duty population overall is 330,678, so the remaining 3.8% yet to be vaccinated constitutes some 12,500 airmen who face possible dismissal from the Air Force after November 2. Those unvaccinated airmen will be “in violation of a lawful order and subject to discipline under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” the Air Force wrote in a news release.

The branch is not messing around: the Air Force recently discharged nearly 40 basic military and technical trainees for refusing the vaccine, the service said. Though the Air Force has stood up a religious and medical exemption process, some observers have complained that the process is set up to drive waiver recipients out of the force. 

Air Force general urges airmen to get vaccinated after getting ‘breakthrough’ COVID case
Osan Elementary and Middle High School teachers receive the COVID-19 vaccine at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, March 12, 2021. While voluntary, the members of Osan are encouraged to obtain the vaccine to protect the base and help reduce the strain on the healthcare systems. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Noah Sudolcan)

For example, on the Air Force COVID-19 website, the service points out that if an airman is classified as non-deployable because they are not vaccinated, and if they are considered non-deployable for more than a year, the airman would be evaluated to be administratively or medically separated from the service. Even Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the number of service members who have a waiver is “very, very small.”

Some of the Air Force’s exact guidelines for waiving the vaccine have also changed over the past few months. For example, in September, the service wrote that “no exemptions from the vaccine will be approved solely because airmen and guardians have an approved retirement or separation date.” But in the Q&A section of the Air Force’s COVID-19 website, the service wrote that airmen who have been approved to retire or separate can adjust their approved retirement or separation date to before April 1, 2022 instead of taking the vaccine.

“In order to retire or separate in lieu of taking the COVID-19 vaccine, regular [or active component] Active Duty Airmen and Guardians must have a commander-approved submission prior to 1 November 2021, and the approved retirement or separation date must be no later than 1 April 2022,” the Air Force wrote.

Air Force general urges airmen to get vaccinated after getting ‘breakthrough’ COVID case
A soldier at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, receives the COVID-19 vaccine, Jan. 14, 2021. (U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Angelo Mejia)

Unvaccinated airmen and guardians will still have to follow all CDC and Department of Defense-related force health protection measures, such as wearing face masks or getting tested for COVID-19, Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek told Task & Purpose.

At least one of the few thousand airmen holding off on the vaccine has pushed back against the mandate. Last month, an airman asked TikTok where veterans like herself who will be discharged for refusing the vaccine could find work.

“Some people are doing it for medical reasons, some people are doing it for personal reasons, beliefs, whatever it may be, it’s about to suck,” the airman said. “What I’m looking for right now is if you’re an employer or you know employers that will undoubtedly employ us … I’m sure a lot of people are trying to plan for their future right now.”

The potential departure of that airman and possibly a few thousand others like her — if those still on the fence remain there until the deadline passes — is a sacrifice the Air Force seems willing to make to preserve the health of the branch overall. Officials at one Air Force base even said that vaccination status for COVID-19 was “the main limiting factor” for the rapid deployment of airmen to Hamid Karzai International Airport during Operation Allies Refuge, the U.S. effort to evacuate Americans, Afghans and other partners from Afghanistan.

“[A]t the time of the spin-up, deploying airmen were faced with the possibility of not being able to exit the aircraft depending on the transient country’s requirements and COVID-19 protocols,” wrote Moody Air Force Base in an article about its HKIA deployment. “This was the main concern for commanders and became very apparent as a readiness issue for deploying forces.”

Faced with the risk of not deploying because they didn’t get the vaccine, 33 airmen volunteered to get the vaccine just so they could go to Afghanistan, Moody wrote. That seems to be the attitude that the Air Force overall is looking for.

“I get at least one notification a day about an Air Force or Space Force teammate we have needlessly lost to COVID,” said Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones. “The data is clear — the vaccine is the best tool to fight this disease. This is about readiness and ensuring our airmen and guardians are healthy and ready to defend the Nation.”

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