Pentagon to require all troops to get coronavirus vaccine by mid-September

The Pentagon will require all military personnel to get the COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 15, according to a new memo from Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Navy probe reveals disastrous ship fire response Pentagon says almost half of Afghan evacuees at US bases are children Russian fighters escort US bombers over Black Sea MORE, released Monday.

“I will seek the president’s approval to make the vaccines mandatory no later than mid-September, or immediately upon” final approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “whichever comes first,” Austin wrote in the memo to troops. 

He added that Pentagon officials “will also be keeping a close eye on infection rates,” currently on the rise now due to the highly contagious delta variant. If the rates begin to impact military readiness, “I will not hesitate to act sooner or recommend a different course to the President if l feel the need to do so. To defend this Nation, we need a healthy and ready force.”

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The Associated Press first reported on the memo earlier Monday. 

Biden — who late last month told Defense Department officials to come up with a plan to require troops to get shots — on Monday said he “strongly” supports Austin’s new message.

“Secretary Austin and I share an unshakable commitment to making sure our troops have every tool they need to do their jobs as safely as possible,” Biden said in a statement.

“Being vaccinated will enable our service members to stay healthy, to better protect their families, and to ensure that our force is ready to operate anywhere in the world. We cannot let up in the fight against COVID-19, especially with the Delta variant spreading rapidly through unvaccinated populations. We are still on a wartime footing, and every American who is eligible should take immediate steps to get vaccinated right away,” he said.

The Pentagon now adds the coronavirus vaccine to the list of more than a dozen shots it requires service members to get, including shots for measles, mumps, diphtheria, hepatitis, smallpox and the flu.

Until now, the Pentagon had not mandated the COVID-19 vaccine as it remains under the FDA emergency use authorization. The department has previously been strongly encouraging troops to take the vaccine.

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In his new memo, Austin said the military services will have the next few weeks to prepare and develop implementation plans. 

“In the meantime, we will comply with the President's direction regarding additional restrictions and requirements for unvaccinated Federal personnel. Those requirements apply to those of you in uniform as well as our civilian and contractor personnel,” he wrote.

The FDA may give final approval to the Pfizer vaccine between now and Sept. 15, but without such a green light, Biden must grant Austin a waiver to make the vaccines mandatory.

Austin noted that over the past week he had consulted closely with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark MilleyMark MilleyRepublicans would need a promotion to be 'paper tigers' We've left Afghanistan — but its consequences are just starting to arrive Key Iraq War strategist and former Army chief Raymond Odierno dies at 67 MORE, the secretaries of the military departments, the service chiefs and medical professionals.

More than 1 million troops are fully vaccinated, with another 237,000 having received one shot, according to the latest Pentagon data.

The vaccination rates in each service vary widely. The Navy is the most vaccinated of the armed forces, with just over 74 percent of its active duty and reserve sailors given at least one shot, while the Marine Corps is closer to 50 percent.

Twenty-eight service members have died from COVID-19.

Austin’s memo is sure to receive pushback from conservatives, who have consistently turned public health guidance throughout the pandemic into a debate over individual freedoms.

Rep. Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieEighth House GOP lawmaker issued 0 fine for not wearing mask on House floor Reps. Greene, Roy fined for not wearing masks on House floor Sixth House GOP lawmaker issued K metal detector fine MORE (R-Ky.), for example, has already introduced a bill to prohibit mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for troops and earlier this month tweeted that he had been “contacted by members of our voluntary military who say they will quit if the COVID vaccine is mandated.”

But House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Navy probe reveals disastrous ship fire response Facebook's the latest example that we must rewrite laws on corporate harm Overnight Defense & National Security — US attempts to mend ties with France MORE (D-Wash.), applauded Austin's move, saying it’s “going to save lives and safeguard our military readiness.”

“Some may try and criticize the Secretary’s decision, using anti-vax arguments that are not supported by facts or science to politicize the conversation. These desperate attention seekers must be ignored. The health and safety of our troops, and our national security, is what truly matters, and mandatory vaccination is the proven solution to provide protection from the COVID-19 virus and delta variant,” Smith said in a statement.

The committee’s ranking member Rep. Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersThe CIA's next mission: Strategic competition with China and Russia Lawmakers, security experts call for beefing up cybersecurity Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Congress looks to strengthen government's aging cyber infrastructure MORE (R-Ala.), also backed Austin, noting that the military already requires 17 vaccines for the benefit of its service members and readiness.

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“Vaccines protect our men and women, many of whom live in cramped and crowded conditions, from the spread of disease while at home or deployed across the globe. Teleworking isn’t an option for the soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and guardians who work every day to confront near-peer rivals and non-state terrorists,” Rogers said in a statement. "We have already seen COVID-19 affect our readiness downrange. Our adversaries will take any advantage they can over us. We must not allow COVID-19 to be a hindrance on our force.”

Austin, meanwhile, urged service members to get the vaccine before it's mandatory.   

“To defend this Nation, we need a healthy and ready force. I strongly encourage all DoD military and civilian personnel - as well as contractor personnel - to get vaccinated now and for military Service members to not wait for the mandate,” he wrote. 

Updated at 3:23 p.m.