Biden asks Pentagon to examine 'how and when' to mandate COVID-19 vaccine for troops

Biden asks Pentagon to examine 'how and when' to mandate COVID-19 vaccine for troops
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President BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes MORE on Thursday will ask the Defense Department to look into “how and when” it will mandate service members get the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the White House.

“Today, the president will announce that he is directing the Department of Defense to look into how and when they will add COVID-19 vaccination to the list of required vaccinations for members of the military,” the White House said in a fact sheet released ahead of a speech Biden will give Thursday afternoon about steps he's taking to encourage more vaccinations.

“This is particularly important because our troops serve in places throughout the world—many where vaccination rates are low and disease is prevalent,” it added.

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The Defense Department already requires service members to get more than a dozen vaccines, including shots for measles, mumps, diphtheria, hepatitis, smallpox and the flu.

But it has so far not mandated the COVID-19 vaccine while it remains under the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) emergency use authorization. Instead, the department has been strongly encouraging troops to take the vaccine and has said that mandating it is an option after it receives full FDA approval.

“If these vaccines are approved by the FDA, then the secretary will certainly talk to the services and health care professionals here at the department to determine what the best options are going forward, which could include making them mandatory,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said earlier this month.

But amid a surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the highly contagious delta variant and low vaccination rates in some parts of the country, the administration has been searching for new ways to encourage vaccinations.

Biden’s announcement on the Defense Department will come in the same speech he is announcing that federal employees will be required to attest to being fully vaccinated or else face weekly or twice weekly COVID-19 testing.

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Additionally, in an effort to stem the spread of the delta variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this week recommended that even vaccinated people wear masks in crowded indoor settings in areas where transmission is high.

In line with that, the Pentagon on Wednesday announced it is reimposing its mask mandate for vaccinated personnel “in areas of substantial or high transmissions.” 

The Air Force is the most vaccinated service, with 81 percent of its force having received both doses of the shot. The Navy comes in second with nearly 80 percent vaccinated, the Army is at 71 percent, while the Marines have the worst numbers at 57 percent.

Twenty-eight service members have died from COVID-19, according to the latest Pentagon data, including two sailors who died in the past week. The Navy has not disclosed those sailors’ vaccination status.

Any effort to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for troops is sure to spark pushback from conservatives, who have consistently turned public health guidance throughout the pandemic into a debate over individual freedoms.

Rep. Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieReps. Greene, Roy fined for not wearing masks on House floor Sixth House GOP lawmaker issued K metal detector fine Kentucky GOP lawmaker deletes tweet comparing vaccine mandates to Holocaust MORE (R-Ky.) has already introduced a bill to prohibit mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for troops and tweeted earlier this month that he had been “contacted by members of our voluntary military who say they will quit if the COVID vaccine is mandated.”

In response, Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerEmboldened Trump takes aim at GOP foes Jan. 6 committee taps former Bush administration official as top lawyer Blinken grilled in first hearing since Afghanistan withdrawal MORE (Ill.), a moderate Republican and member of the Air National Guard, tweeted that there was "so much wrong with [Massie's] tweet even beyond how naive it is."

“1) sorry, but you can’t quit the military. 2) there are about 3890 mandatory vaccines in the military already, 3) you knew this when you joined. 4) THE VACCINE WORKS," Kinzinger added. "Good luck with your pandering though.”