For months, Defense Department officials encouraged, cajoled and pleaded with the troops to take the COVID-19 vaccine. But with the much more contagious delta variant raising its head and the numbers still insufficient, the Pentagon said the Mr. Nice Guy approach is over.
The clock could even be pushed forward if the Food and Drug Administration approves the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine before then, Mr. Austin said in the memo to the troops. The vaccine had been voluntary in part because federal officials had only approved it on an “emergency” basis because of the threat posed by the pandemic, which has killed more than 600,000 Americans since early 2020.
But the mandate, at a time when many Americans remain skeptical of the vaccine and resentful of official pressure to get the shot, could once again put the Pentagon in the partisan crosshairs. The Department of Defense has reported over a total 318,000 cases among its military and civilian personnel and 385 deaths, but cases are ticking up again with the delta strain and the Navy reported the recent deaths of two sailors from COVID-19, the first fatalities for the service since May.
“The intervening few weeks will be spent preparing for this transition,” Mr. Austin wrote. “I have every confidence that service leadership and your commanders will implement this new vaccination program with professionalism, skill and compassion.”
The White House later released a statement saying President Biden “strongly supports” the position taken by the man he picked to lead the Pentagon. The administration has been frustrated by the slowing pace of vaccination rates after an initial rush in the spring and early summer.
An estimated 70% of the active-duty force has had at least one dose of a vaccine, while 56% of the total force ― including the Reserve and National Guard components ― is at least partially vaccinated.
“Being vaccinated will enable our service members to stay healthy, to better protect their families and to ensure that our force is ready to operate anywhere in the world,” Mr. Biden said.
Military leaders have just over a month to determine how they will implement the order to ensure that 100% of their personnel have taken one of the accepted COVID-19 vaccines. The grace period could be even shorter if the FDA approves any or all of them. There will be health and religious exemptions available, with services leaders deciding on how to deal with them as well.
“The services will have a fair but limited amount of time to come back to [Mr. Austin] with their implementation plans,” said John Kirby, chief Pentagon spokesman.
Pentagon officials don’t anticipate supply chain problems resulting from the plan to ramp up the vaccine program in the military.
“We don’t believe the inventory is going to be a problem,” Mr. Kirby said. “We will make sure inventory will not be a limiting factor when these vaccines are made mandatory.”
The decision to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine has supporters on Capitol Hill, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington state Democrat.
Mr. Austin‘s order “is going to save lives and safeguard our military readiness,” Mr. Smith said. “The health and safety of our troops and our national security is what truly matters. Mandatory vaccination is the proven solution to provide protection from the COVID-19 virus and delta variants.”
It isn’t uncommon for military personnel to receive a dozen or more shots to prevent various health maladies, depending on the mission requirement, although typically only after full FDA vetting and approval.
Retired USMC Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, chairman of the National Defense Industrial Association, said he welcomed the order for troops to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Taking vaccines is nothing new for the Department of Defense and our military. We had to take vaccines going into Vietnam and we had to take the Anthrax shot going into Iraq,” Maj. Gen. Punaro said. “As the U.S. Marine Corps says, ‘We must be ready when the nation is least ready,’ and we are facing new threats today. We do not know when we will have to go into harm’s way so our military must be ready to go at a moment’s notice.”
Top medical officials in the military recommend the new policy mandating COVID-19 shots as a “necessary step to sustain our readiness and protect our force,” Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said in a memo released the same day as Mr. Austin‘s order.
“We fight together in the defense of our nation. We are responsible for each other’s health and safety,” Gen. Milley wrote. “Vaccines are the best tools to protect us from COVID-19.”
The individual services will get a wide leeway on how to implement the order. Some of them have begun putting together their own guidelines, which they will eventually use to brief Mr. Austin. He spoke to the service secretaries earlier Monday about the policy change.
“All of us had a sense that this was coming,” Mr. Kirby said. “He doesn’t expect that it will take them very long to come back with implementation plans.”
Mr. Kirby would not speculate about what might happen to military personnel who refuse to get the COVID-19 shot. In the meantime, Pentagon officials said they will comply with President Biden‘s order for additional restrictions on personnel working for the U.S. government who have not been vaccinated, including social distancing limits and wearing masks.
• Mike Glenn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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