Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced on Monday that the Pentagon plans to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for all military personnel by the middle of September. In a message to the force, Austin wrote that he would “seek the president’s approval to make the vaccines mandatory no later than mid-September, or immediately upon the U.S. Food and Drug Administration licensure, whichever comes first”.
Austin wrote that the decision had been made following consultations with Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretaries of the Military Departments, the Service Chiefs, and medical professionals, noting that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was expected to receive full FDA licensure next month. He continued that the next few weeks would be used to prepare for the rollout of a mandatory vaccination program, expressing confidence that service leadership would be able to implement the program with “professionalism, skill, and compassion”. “We will have more to say about this as implementation plans are fully developed.”
Austin added that the Department of Defense would continue to keep a “close eye” on a spike in COVID-19 infections caused by the Delta variant and the impact they may have on military readiness, saying that he would “not hesitate to act sooner or recommend a different course to the President if I feel the need to do so”. The Secretary also encouraged all DOD civilian and military personnel, contractors included, to voluntarily get vaccinated before it became mandatory, emphasizing their safety:
“All FDA-authorized COVID-19 vaccines are safe and highly effective. 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.”
In a statement, President Joe Biden expressed his strong support for Secretary Austin’s announcement, saying that he shared with Austin an “unshakable commitment to making sure our troops have every tool they need to do their jobs as safely as possible”. The President stressed that the United States “cannot let up in the fight against COVID-19”, saying that the US was still on a “wartime footing”, urging for everyone eligible to get vaccinated “right away”.
A DOD vaccination mandate has been the topic of speculation for some time, as the Delta variant continues to drive a global surge in cases. While the Pentagon says that at least 73% of active duty personnel have now received at least one vaccine dose, it announced late last month that all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, were to wear masks in indoor settings at Department of Defense installations and facilities in areas of “substantial or high transmission” as defined by the Centers for Disease Control. While vaccinations have been the subject of significant partisan political fighting even as the pandemic in the United States is becoming described as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”, military officials that spoke to the Associated Press have indicated that troops who refuse mandatory vaccinations may be subject to disciplinary measures, possibly under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.