Following a rise in COVID-19 cases attributed to the delta variant of the virus, multiple media outlets are reporting that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will seek authority to mandate vaccines for the entire active-duty force. Fox News reports that Austin is expected to formally announce a mandatory vaccine policy for active-duty troops on Friday.
Currently, vaccines for COVID-19 are not fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration and approval for use was granted under an emergency authorization. As a result, mandating the vaccine for military members requires a waiver from President Joe Biden. Fox News reports that Austin will ask for a waiver from Biden on Thursday, followed by formal guidance to the DoD on Friday.
The move toward mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for active-duty military personnel comes a week after the Pentagon announced that DoD was in the process of consultations to “determine how and when” to recommend to Biden about adding COVID-19 vaccines to the list of mandatory immunizations troops receive.
Austin, while traveling in the Philippines last week, told a news conference that he would consult with medical professionals and the services on a timeline for implementing a new policy, according to CNN. “But we won’t let grass grow under our feet,” he said. “The President directed us to do something and we’ll get after it.”
Thursday morning, the Pentagon declined comment on reports that Austin would recommend to Biden mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for troops, instead deferring to statements spokesman John Kirby made on Tuesday.
“The secretary obviously wants to consult medical professionals as well as the services,” Kirby said at the time. “And as you know, the way the process works is he would have to request a waiver from the president to — to waive the emergency use authorization as the justification for making it involuntary. So that, as far as I know, has not occurred yet. But I, again, would point you back to what the secretary said. He’s not going to let grass grow under his feet.”
“The delta variant has certainly affected us here in the military as it has affected the rest of the country,” Kirby said. “And when we have more to say about the status of the vaccines, we’ll certainly do that. I don’t think it will be very long.”
The announcement last week that DoD was exploring the requirement of a COVID-19 vaccine for personnel came as Biden ordered that unvaccinated federal civilian workers and contractors would be subject to mandatory testing, social distancing, and masking.
“The Department of Defense is moving quickly to meet President Biden’s commitment to defeat COVID-19, and that includes being able to ensure every member of our civilian and military workforce is protected,” Jamal Brown, deputy Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement last week.
According to Fox News, about 64 percent of the active-duty-force is fully vaccinated, while 70 percent have had at least one dose of the vaccine. Overall, roughly half of the United States is fully vaccinated, and 58 percent of Americans have had at least one dose.
Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control reports more than a 64 percent increase COVID-19 cases over the last week. The spike in cases puts caseloads on par with levels in February of this year.
This is a developing story. Stay with Military Times for updates.
James R. Webb is a rapid response reporter for Military Times. He served as a US Marine infantryman in Iraq. Additionally, he has worked as a Legislative Assistant in the US Senate and as an embedded photographer in Afghanistan.