All members of the active-duty and reserve components of the military will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a memo signed Tuesday by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Just under 60 percent of the force has received at least one vaccine, per the latest data, though the Defense Department has until now offered the shots on a volunteer basis. With the full Food and Drug Administration approval of the Pfizer vaccine on Monday, the Pentagon is moving for full vaccination of more than 2 million service members.
“Mandatory vaccinations are familiar to all of our Service members, and mission-critical inoculation is almost as old as the U.S. military itself,” Austin wrote. “Our administration of safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines has produced admirable results o date, and I know the Department of Defense will come together to finish the job with urgency, professionalism, and compassion.”
The memo directs the Army, Air Force and Navy secretaries to “immediately begin full vaccination,” though he does not set a timeline. Rather, he leaves it them to “impose ambitious timelines for implementation,” and to report their progress through existing channels.
For now, according to the memo, only the Pfizer vaccine will be required, as it is the only fully FDA-licensed. Troops who received another brand are still considered fully vaccinated, Austin wrote.
His memo does not address whether he will still seek a waiver from President Joe Biden to add the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson products to the mandatory list.
In an August memo, he said he would make that request no later than mid-September, though he reserved the right to move up that request if the FDA approved any of them before that deadline, or if pandemic conditions called for it.
The secretary may still request those waivers, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told Military Times on Wednesday.
The announcement comes one week after the military’s deadliest week to date during the pandemic. Four service members, aged 27 to 49, died of COVID-19 complications between Aug. 13 and 15 ― more troops in one week than November, when the military clocked its deadliest month with four deaths.
“Our vaccination of the Force will save lives,” Austin wrote. “Thank you for your focus on this critical mission.”
As of Wednesday, 68 percent of active-duty troops are fully vaccinated, with another 8 percent who have had one dose. With the reserve component, those totals come to 47 percent fully vaccinated and 11 percent with one dose.
The Navy is still the most vaccinated service, with 73 percent fully and 79 percent partially vaccinated. They’re followed by the Air Force, with 57 percent full and 64 percent partial vaccination, then 53 percent full and 60 percent partial for the Marine Corps, and 40 percent full and 57 percent partial in the Army, according to numbers provided by Kirby.
The data suggests that National Guard and Reserve troops are much more reluctant to get vaccinated. In late June, according to the head of the Defense Healthy Agency, the active-duty Navy was 77 percent vaccinated, followed by the Army at 70 percent, the Air Force at 61 percent and 58 percent for the Marines.
Austin’s memo also does not detail any recourse for commanders whose troops continue to refuse vaccination, though there are tools that already exist. Among them are rare medical or religious waivers, as well as counseling and non-judicial punishment to persuade, up to and including criminal charges.
“Commanders have a wide range of tools available to them to help their teammates make the right decision,” Kirby said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.
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