The Pentagon in a memo released Monday said it aims to make Covid-19 vaccinations mandatory for the nation's 1.3 million active-duty troops no later than Sept. 15.
The plan comes a little more than a week after President Joe Biden ordered defense officials to establish a plan to vaccinate military troops as part of his larger campaign to require federal employees to be vaccinated, the Associated Press reports.
A previously announced component of that campaign requires that all 766,372 civilians working for the Department of Defense must get vaccinated or submit to regular Covid-19 testing, according to the Times, but that requirement did not affect active-duty service members.
Currently, according to the New York Times, roughly 64% of active-duty service members are fully vaccinated. An additional 237,000 troops have received at least one shot. However, vaccination rates vary widely across military services, with about 50% of the Army's service members and 74% of the Navy's active duty and reserve sailors at least partially vaccinated.
In a memo released Monday to all troops, Lloyd Austin, who serves as secretary of defense, said he would seek Biden's "approval to make the vaccines mandatory no later than mid-September," or earlier if FDA approves the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine before Sept. 15.
Austin added that if infection rates increase and potentially affect military readiness, he "will not hesitate to act sooner or recommend a different course to the president if I feel the need to do so. To defend this nation, we need a healthy and ready force."
If the mandate takes effect prior to FDA's authorization of a Covid-19 vaccine, the Times reports, Biden will have to issue a waiver to the Department of Defense to authorize the requirement. If and when the vaccine is required for active-duty military, it will join a list of other inoculations service members are required to get, which—depending on their location—can include as many as 17 vaccines.
At that point, if troops still refuse to get vaccinated against Covid-19, their actions could constitute a failure to obey an order, and they may be penalized under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the Associated Press reports. Troops are permitted to seek exemptions to vaccinate requirements, the AP reports, for health, religious, or other reasons.
According to Austin, military services will have the coming weeks to prepare to implement the requirement, including assessing how many vaccine doses they will need. In the meantime, Austin added, the Pentagon will follow Biden's requirement that federal personnel who are not yet vaccinated adhere to additional safety protocols, including masking, social distancing, and travel limitations.
In response to the memo, Biden voiced support for Austin's plan, saying in a statement, "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."
Biden added, "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. We cannot let up in the fight against Covid-19, especially with the delta variant spreading rapidly through unvaccinated populations."
Several lawmakers and political leaders expressed support for the plan, the Times reports.
"Secretary Austin is protecting our troops with his announcement today that all service members must be vaccinated against Covid," Leon Panetta, who served as defense secretary during the Obama administration, said.
Similarly, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the leading Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said, "[V]accines protect our men and women, many of whom live in cramped and crowded conditions, from the spread of disease."
However, some voiced reservations about the measure.
Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.), for instance, said Austin should not mandate a vaccine that doesn't have full FDA approval. "Wearing our country's uniform does not mean our service members sign away the right to make personal medical decisions," he said. (Baldor, Associated Press, 8/9; Saric, Axios, 8/9; Cooper/Steinhauer, New York Times, 8/9)