Pentagon to require COVID vaccines for all service members

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U.S. Air Force personnel assigned to the 31st Fighter Wing (FW) receive the first Moderna COVID-19 vaccines at Aviano Air Base, Italy, Jan. 8, 2021. Staff Sgt. K. Tucker Owen/U.S. Air Force/DVIDS)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will request approval for the COVID-19 vaccine to become mandatory for all U.S. military service members by mid-September, according to a memo he sent to all Defense Department employees.

“I want you to know that I will seek the President’s approval to make the vaccines mandatory no later than mid-September, or immediately upon the U.S. Food and Drug Agency (FDA) licensure, whichever comes first,” Austin wrote in the memo.

A U.S. official initially confirmed Austin’s decision to ABC News before it was later made public in the written message to all U.S. military service members.

“By way of expectation, public reporting suggests the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine could achieve full FDA licensure early next month. The intervening few weeks will be spent preparing for this transition,” Austin wrote.

Given the rising coronavirus case numbers amid the increasing spread of the highly transmissible delta variant, Austin noted that “I will not hesitate to act sooner or recommend a different course to the President if l feel the need to do so.”

In a statement released shortly after Austin’s memo was sent out, the president said, “I strongly support Secretary Austin’s message to the Force today on the Department of Defense’s plan to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required vaccinations for our service members not later than mid-September. Secretary Austin and I share an unshakable commitment to making sure our troops have every tool they need to do their jobs as safely as possible. These vaccines will save lives. Period. They are safe. They are effective.”

“We cannot let up in the fight against COVID-19, especially with the Delta variant spreading rapidly through unvaccinated populations. We are still on a wartime footing, and every American who is eligible should take immediate steps to get vaccinated right away,” Biden’s statement continued.

Because the COVID-19 vaccines are currently only being used under an emergency use authorization from the FDA, Biden will have to grant a waiver to enable the Pentagon to make vaccinations mandatory.

DOD press secretary John Kirby told reporters Monday that 73% of active-duty troops have at least one dose and more than 60% are now fully vaccinated.

Until Austin’s recommendation for a mandate, the U.S. military could only recommend to service members that they should take the vaccination. However, Pentagon officials had said that once the FDA approved a COVID vaccine that they would begin a review of whether it should be made mandatory for U.S. military personnel, just like the 17 other vaccines that are mandatory for U.S. military personnel.

Austin’s decision follows Biden’s announcement two weeks ago that federal employees would be required to provide proof of vaccination or face regular testing. Biden also ordered the Pentagon to explore “how and when” it could require service members to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

In addition to the recommendation to make the vaccine mandatory, Austin wrote that “we will comply with the President’s direction regarding additional restrictions and requirements for unvaccinated Federal personnel.”

Kirby did not offer specifics when asked at Monday’s press briefing.

“I don’t have the details for all that today,” Kirby said. “We’re working hard on what will be a policy directive to come in the coming days that will make it clear what those requirements and restrictions are and how they apply to everybody in the DOD workforce, including uniformed personnel,” Kirby said.

Austin implored unvaccinated people in his department to get their shots before they’re required.

“I strongly encourage all DoD military and civilian personnel — as well as contractor personnel — to get vaccinated now and for military Service members to not wait for the mandate,” he wrote.

“All FDA-authorized COVID-19 vaccines are safe and highly effective,” Austin said. “They will protect you and your family. They will protect your unit, your ship, and your co-workers. And they will ensure we remain the most lethal and ready force in the world. Get the shot. Stay healthy. Stay ready.”

(By Luis Martinez and Matt Seyler | ABC News)

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