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Oklahoman Gov. Kevin Stitt looks back at the needle after looking away while being administered the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on March 29, 2021, in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma’s Republican governor and the state attorney general are suing in federal court to exempt the state’s National Guard from a Biden administration COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Oklahoman Gov. Kevin Stitt looks back at the needle after looking away while being administered the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on March 29, 2021, in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma’s Republican governor and the state attorney general are suing in federal court to exempt the state’s National Guard from a Biden administration COVID-19 vaccine mandate. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Members of Oklahoma’s Air National Guard who haven’t received COVID-19 vaccinations should be able to train this weekend and get paid, according to the state’s Adjutant General, but the situation may change next week.

The deadline for Air National Guard members to be vaccinated was on Thursday. However, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin gave service leaders until Monday to publish guidance for implementing his newly announced policy regarding unvaccinated personnel.

Under that guidance, Guard members who aren’t vaccinated by their service’s deadline will not be allowed to drill or train or be paid by the Defense Department.

Brigadier General Thomas H. Mancino, Oklahoma’s Adjutant General, said in an interview on Friday, “Our airmen will drill this weekend.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt has challenged Austin’s authority to impose a vaccine mandate on National Guard members who have not been activated for federal duty. Though Guard members are paid by the federal government regardless of their status, Stitt maintains that he is the commander-in-chief for Guard members not on federal duty and that he can set the vaccination policy for them.

Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor included 16 unnamed Air National Guard members as plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed Thursday in Oklahoma City against Biden administration members, including Austin.

That suit seeks an injunction barring the administration from enforcing its mandate that all federal employees be vaccinated. The suit does not raise the issues specific to Guard member status.

However, Mancino said, “I believe that it’s (Stitt’s) intent that he will push this issue in the courts.”

Stitt, the only governor who has so far challenged Austin’s authority to mandate vaccinations for Guard members on state, or Title 32, status, asked Austin last month to exempt Guard members from the requirement.

Austin told Stitt in a letter on Monday that “all members of the Oklahoma Army and Air National Guard, regardless of duty status, must follow the directions of the Secretary of the Army and the Secretary of the Air Force, respectively, for specific COVID-19 vaccine compliance deadlines and requirements.”

Mancino was in Washington this week and met with members of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation about the issue. He said he did not meet personally with Pentagon leaders but had spoken with some recently.

Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford said that the law governing Guard members and their status “does matter in all this.” Under the law, the Defense Department would typically penalize the state’s Guard for being out of compliance, Lankford said. Instead, Austin has proposed cutting off pay to individual members, which would also affect their health insurance.

Lankford tried unsuccessfully this week to amend the annual defense bill with a provision blocking Austin’s policy.

Rep. Stephanie Bice, R- Oklahoma City, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, also questioned “inflicting pain upon service members for not wanting to be mandated to take a vaccine.”

She and Lankford said there was no question that Austin has the authority to mandate vaccinations for active duty personnel.

“Active duty personnel don’t get a decision on that,” Lankford said. “When you sign up, you get vaccinations.”

Mancino said Friday that he and Stitt had both been clear in stating that they are not disputing the mandate for active duty personnel, only for Guard members on state status.

Bice said Stitt’s response to the vaccination mandate for Guard members may be the result of his hearing from many Oklahoma members. According to figures from the Oklahoma National Guard three weeks ago, about 90% of Air National Guard members had been vaccinated. Only 40% of Army National Guard members had been fully vaccinated, but the deadline for Army National Guard members is June 30.

Mancino said Guard units typically get a year’s notice before deployment, meaning they would have plenty of time to get vaccinated once they received federal orders.

In his letter to Austin, Stitt said the mandate for Guard members “violates the personal freedoms of many Oklahomans, as it asks them to potentially sacrifice their personal beliefs in order to not lose their jobs.”

Austin responded that his decision to mandate vaccinations stemmed “directly from my responsibility as the Secretary of Defense to promote the health, safety, and readiness of our military personnel, regardless of duty status, to include all members of the National Guard performing any duty or training. ... The concerns raised in your letter do not negate the need for this important military readiness requirement.”

(c)2021 The Oklahoman

Visit The Oklahoman at www.newsok.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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