The Pentagon has said it would respond “appropriately” to a decision by Oklahoma’s National Guard to defy a Defense Department mandate that all US troops must be vaccinated against COVID-19.
"We are aware of the memo issued by the Oklahoma Adjutant General regarding COVID vaccination for Guardsmen and the governor’s letter requesting exemption. We will respond to the governor appropriately," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told the news website Axios in a statement.
"That said, [Defense] Secretary [Lloyd] Austin believes that a vaccinated force is a more ready force. That is why he has ordered mandatory vaccines for the total force, and that includes our National Guard, who contribute significantly to national missions at home and abroad," Kirby added.
Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, who was appointed this week to oversee the Oklahoma National Guard, said in a letter he would not enforce the Defense Department’s vaccine mandate, issued in August requiring all US military service members to get fully vaccinated.
“I hereby order that no Oklahoma Guardsmen be required to take the COVID-19 vaccine, notwithstanding any other federal requirement,” the memo read. “Additionally, no negative administration or legal action will be taken against Guardsmen who refuse the vaccine.”
Kevin Stitt, Oklahoma’s Republican governor who appointed the adjutant general, had earlier this month sent a letter to Secretary Lloyd asking for the vaccine mandate to be suspended for members of the state’s National Guard.
"This mandate violates the personal freedoms of many Oklahomans, as it asks them to potentially sacrifice their personal beliefs in order to not lose their jobs. All of our national guardsmen take this calling very seriously," he wrote.
The governor said that around 10 percent of Oklahoma’s guardsmen did not wish to get vaccinated, adding it would be “irresponsible” to reduce the force by that size. "We estimate that over 800 Oklahoma guardsmen have not and do not plan on receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. This constitutes 10 percent of Oklahoma’s overall force," the letter read.
The previous adjutant general, Mike Thompson, had supported the Pentagon’s vaccine requirement. But, he was abruptly removed from his post on Wednesday.
The news in Oklahoma comes as multiple Republican-led states have filed lawsuits to stop the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for private contractors. A US federal appeals court also on Friday extended a previous stay on a separate vaccine requirement for employees of private businesses with more than 100 staff.
Biden in September announced that his administration would issue the vaccine mandate for private employees as one of several steps to contain the spread of the virus, which so far has claimed 750,000 lives in the United States.
At least 27 states have filed legal challenges in at least six federal appeals courts after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued its rules on November 4. The lawsuits contend that the mandate is an unlawful overreach and a power grab by the federal government.
Meanwhile, Americans’ approval of President Biden’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has steadily declined in recent months, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found.
According to the survey, 47 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the pandemic, down 15 points from June. Forty-nine percent of respondents said they disapprove of how the president has handled the health crisis, which seemed to be easing this summer, but roared back to life with the emergence of the Delta variant.