Pentagon requires military members get COVID-19 vaccine immediately

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered service members to “immediately begin” receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a Pentagon memo released Wednesday.

“To defend this Nation, we need a healthy and ready force. After careful consultation with medical experts and military leadership, and with the support of the President, I have determined that mandatory vaccination against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is necessary to protect the Force and defend the American people,” Austin wrote in the memo.

No timeline was given for when troops are required to get the shot, but Austin said he directed service branch secretaries to “impose ambitious timelines for implementation,” and to report to him regularly on their progress.

Roughly 800,000 active duty, National Guard and Ready Reserve troops have yet to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the latest numbers from the Defense Department.

But with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) giving full approval to the Pfizer vaccine earlier this week, Austin was able to add it to the list of 17 required shots service members must get when they enter the military or before they deploy overseas.

The Defense Department will only make mandatory the COVID-19 vaccines that receive full approval from the FDA, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday.

Austin’s mandate follows his Aug. 9 pledge to require the vaccine no later than mid-September. If the FDA had not given full approval to the Pfizer vaccine, Austin would have had to seek a waiver from President Biden to require COVID-19 vaccinations for all service members. 

The Pentagon has been using a variety of campaigns to encourage troops to take the vaccine, but many members have remained resistant, reflecting some of the reluctance in the broader U.S. population.

The Defense Department held off on requiring COVID-19 vaccinations while the vaccines were under FDA emergency use authorization.

But with the highly contagious delta variant and the FDA giving its full approval, state and local governments, as well as companies, have begun to require the shot for workers.

August has been the deadliest month for COVID-19 deaths in the military, with the virus claiming the lives of 34 service members, up from 25 in July. 

In his memo, Austin emphasized that mandatory vaccines were familiar to all service members, “and mission-critical inoculation is almost as old as the U.S. military itself.”

The mandate allows for religious or medical exemptions, consistent with Pentagon policies for other required vaccines.

Asked about possible punishments for troops who resist getting vaccinated, Kirby said Austin has communicated that military leaders should implement the program “with a measure of compassion.”

“Commanders have a wide range of tools available to them short of using the [Uniform Code of Military Justice] and I think we’re going to trust the commanders are going to make the right decision going forward,” Kirby said, referring to the military law that determines punitive measures and disciplinary action.

Kirby said members who do not seek or are granted an exemption but still object to the vaccine will be offered a chance to speak with a physician who will “communicate to them the risks that they’re taking by continuing to not want to take the vaccine.”

They will also be offered a chance to sit down with their leadership “to talk about the risk that their objection will impose on the unit, and on the force, and on their teammates,” Kirby added.

Beyond that, Kirby stressed that the mandate is “a lawful order and we fully anticipate that our troops are going to follow lawful orders.”

“It hasn’t been a problem in the past with other vaccines. Now, I recognize COVID has a different history to it and a different cultural ascription to it. But it’s a lawful order,” Kirby said.

As of Aug. 18, more than 1 million active duty, Guard and Reserve service members were fully vaccinated and nearly 245,000 had received at least one shot, according to the Pentagon.

The Pentagon only provides figures on active-duty troops or by each total service branch.

Kirby said 68 percent of all active-duty troops were fully vaccinated, with 78 percent receiving one dose.

That percentage was far lower in the Army, with only 40 percent fully vaccinated and 57 percent with one dose.

The Marine Corps had slightly better figures, at 53 percent fully vaccinated and 60 percent with one dose. The Navy had the best numbers, with 73 percent fully inoculated and 79 percent partially vaccinated.

The Air Force, meanwhile, sits at 57 percent fully vaccinated and 64 percent with one dose.

Updated at 1:05 p.m.

Tags coronavirus-pandemic COVID-19 Department of Defense DOD FDA Food and Drug Administration Joe Biden Lloyd Austin Pentagon Pfizer vaccine
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