As COVID-19 vaccine rates continue to inch upward and cases continue to fall across America, the Navy’s top personnel officer said this week that sailors should expect the vaccine to become mandatory in the not-too-distant future.

Speaking at a Facebook townhall event, Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. John Nowell noted that the vaccine remains voluntary for now because of its emergency-use status.

But when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approves the vaccines, the Navy will likely make it mandatory, like the flu jab, Nowell said this week, echoing what other admirals have said in recent months.

“When it’s formally approved, which we expect pretty soon, we’ll probably go to that,” he told a sailor who asked about COVID vaccinations and differing sailor opinions on getting the jabs.

“That question will be moot,” Nowell added.

He also reassured wary sailors that their VA benefits or other healthcare needs won’t be impacted by whether they take or decline the vaccines during this voluntary period.

“Regardless of whether they take the vaccine or not, if you’re in the military, we’re responsible for your health care,” Nowell said. “Once you get out, the VA is responsible for that.”

To date, roughly 72 percent of sailors are fully vaccinated, while 82 percent of the fleet has received at least one shot, according to Defense Department data.

“I know that the vaccine is something that’s very personal for everybody,” Nowell said.

“I do believe the vaccine is safe,” he added. “Everyone in my family has taken it, from my youngest child who’s a nurse to my 86-year-old father.”

As new variants emerge, getting more people vaccinated reduces the risk that the virus could mutate in an unforeseen way, Nowell said.

“We think you’re safer, your family’s safer … your shipmates are safer and therefore we can make sure we get the job done,” he said. “I would ask folks to thoughtfully reconsider if they have declined the vaccine, but I do understand it’s their decision.”

Geoff is the editor of Navy Times, but he still loves writing stories. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at

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