Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will begin consulting military medical professionals, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to “determine how and when to make recommendations to President Joe Biden” about adding the COVID-19 vaccines to the full list of requirements for military personnel, the Pentagon announced Thursday evening.
The announcement came in the wake of Biden’s call earlier in the day for the Pentagon to look into adding those vaccines to the list of required inoculations for service members. Biden also ordered that all federal workers not vaccinated against COVID-19 will be subject to masking, social distancing and mandatory testing.
“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. “In accordance with the guidance the President issued today, all military and civilian DoD personnel will be asked to attest to their vaccination status. Personnel unable or unwilling to do that will be required to wear a mask, physically distance, comply with a regular testing requirement and be subject to official travel restrictions.”
Biden has stayed largely mum on the topic of mandatory troop vaccinations since he took office in January. The Defense Department has faced endless questions as to why the COVID-19 shot has been voluntary, despite a litany of other required vaccines.
In short, because of the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization, Pentagon leadership has thought better of forcing it, though Biden’s order could supersede that policy.
As the delta variant sends the country back into mask mandates and indoor gathering restrictions, stronger vaccine rules are now on the table.
“Right now, too many people are dying or watching someone they love die and say if ‘I’d just got the vaccine,’” Biden said Thursday. “This is an American tragedy. People are dying who don’t have to die.”
Biden did not specify whether he would be open to waiting for full FDA approval before enacting a vaccine mandate.
On Wednesday, the DoD reinstated an indoor mask mandate for areas of the country designated “substantial” or “high” for COVID-19 transmission, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.
Whether service members will be required to get vaccinated, they are considered federal workers for the purposes of the new prevention protocol. That would mean weekly testing, in addition to so-called sentinel testing the military put in place in spring 2020, for troops preparing to deploy, redeploy or travel on orders.
About 54 percent of active and reserve troops have received at least one dose of a vaccine, per DoD’s most recently posted numbers.
Each of the services has undertaken their own campaigns to convince members to get vaccinated, to varying affect. While the active-duty Navy reported 77 percent vaccination in late June, the Marine Corps was far behind at 58 percent.
DoD will continue to offer vaccines to personnel and their families around the world, said Brown, the Pentagon spokesman.
“And we will continue to adjust our protocols to the local conditions of the communities we serve in,” he said in the statement.
“COVID-19 remains a significant and evolving threat to our nation’s security,” he said. “The rise of the Delta variant and the speed with which it transmits make these additional protective efforts all the more vital to protecting our force and the nation we defend.
“Vaccines remain the best and most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID, including the Delta variant.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.