Service members, civilians and contractors working on Defense Department installations in areas where COVID-19 cases are spiking will be required to mask up indoors, according to a memo signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks on Wednesday.
The mandate starts Wednesday in places with “substantial or high community transmission,” the memo says, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
“Service members, Federal employees, onsite contractor employees, and visitors who are not fully vaccinated also need to continue to physically distance consistent with applicable CDC and DoD Force Health Protection guidance,” Hicks added.
High-transmission zones include anything marked in orange or red on the CDC’s online tracker, which includes much of the southeastern United States, across the Midwest, Texas and into the Mountain West.
While masking regulations have come straight from the Pentagon since early 2020, local commanders have had authority to decide who comes on installations and which facilities are open, and to whom, throughout the pandemic, based on local infection statistics.
DoD’s latest data, which hasn’t been updated since July 21, shows that 44 percent of the force ― over 1 million troops ― is fully vaccinated, including both active-duty and reserve troops. Another 228,816 partially vaccinations brings the rate up to 54 percent.
While new COVID-19 infections have slowed since the introduction of the vaccines, service members do continue to be diagnosed. As of July 21, there are 3,600 active cases among troops.
In general, active-duty troops are more likely to be vaccinated than their reservist counterparts. The Navy reports the highest vaccination rate, at 77 percent, while the Marine Corps has seen the lowest, 58 percent, as of late June.
As delta variant cases continue to surge throughout the U.S., the military reported its first deaths since May. Both were sailors, one of whom was a doctor at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C.
The Navy did not disclose whether the sailors were vaccinated, citing privacy regulations.
CDC has reported that upward of 90 percent of new COVID-19 cases, and roughly 99 percent of serious or deadly cases, are among unvaccinated people.
President Joe Biden is expected to announce a vaccination mandate for federal employees on Thursday, but the Pentagon is not currently working on new guidance that would make vaccines mandatory.
“There has been no change to our use of the vaccine as a voluntary measure of protection,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement Wednesday. “We continue to urge everyone in the Department to get vaccinated.”
The Pentagon’s position has been to keep vaccines voluntary and then reevaluate once they receive full Food and Drug Administration approval.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.