Military to mandate inoculation for active-duty troops by next month

By Helene Cooper and Jennifer Steinhauer

The Pentagon will seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of next month, the Biden administration announced earlier this week.

Officials initially said the shots could be required by the end of August to help stop the spread of the highly contagious delta variant. But they decided to wait, bowing to concerns expressed by White House officials about putting a mandate in place for troops before the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval for the vaccine.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III said in a memo to the staff Monday that he would seek to speed up a mandate if the FDA approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine before the middle of September, which the agency aims to do. In the meantime, he told the services to begin preparing the force for mandatory vaccinations.

But the middle of September is more than five weeks away, and even then, the administration has not put a deadline in place for when troops must be fully vaccinated.

The decision to delay is the latest shift in the Biden administration’s response to the surging delta variant. President Joe Biden has expressed frustration with the vaccination rate around the nation and urged the private sector and state and local governments to step up pressure on the unvaccinated. But he has repeatedly passed on ordering troops as their commander in chief to be injected with vaccines that have not been fully approved by the FDA.

About 64% of the 1.3 million active-duty service members are fully vaccinated. That rate is unacceptably low to the military because it is difficult to deploy troops who have not been inoculated to countries with stringent local restrictions and because a surge of the virus among troops can cripple readiness.

“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” FDA approval, Austin said in his memo, adding “whichever comes first.” He said that the department would keep a close eye on the rate of new virus cases and added that “I will not hesitate to act sooner or recommend a different course to the president if I feel the need to do so.”

But Austin already recommended a different course to his boss, and Biden balked. Last week, Austin advised Biden that a vaccine mandate was one of the few measures available to protect troops from the virus.

The Pentagon recommended going ahead with the mandate and not waiting for FDA approval, according to three administration officials with knowledge of the internal deliberations. White House and Defense Department legal staff members said the president also had the authority to mandate vaccines for members of the National Guard and the Reserves.

During a meeting at the White House on Friday, defense officials presented a plan to immediately mandate vaccinations for all active-duty service members, the officials said. But White House officials urged caution, the officials said.

In a statement Monday, Biden said his administration was “on a wartime footing, and every American who is eligible should take immediate steps to get vaccinated right away.”

Biden said that “we cannot let up in the fight against COVID-19, especially with the delta variant spreading rapidly through unvaccinated populations.”

Health and other officials have said that vaccinating troops could help slow the spread of the virus in communities near military bases and in areas where hesitancy has been strong.

“Military settings, including bases with many civilian employees, can be very vulnerable from an infectious disease perspective,” said Lindsey Leininger, a health policy researcher and a clinical professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. “Better late than never for the mandate.”

Biden’s caution came as a surprise to some administration officials because the president announced last month that all federal employees and on-site contractors must be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing and other measures. That requirement affected the 766,372 civilians working for the Defense Department, not active-duty service members.

The Department of Veterans Affairs recently required 115,000 of its front-line health care workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus in the next two months. The department is looking at ways to expand that mandate to other workers in the system and possibly those who visit department facilities.

Because U.S. military members are governed by different health and justice authorities than other federal workers, the decision is ultimately made by the president, who must grant a waiver to the Defense Department to make vaccinations mandatory for a vaccine not yet approved by the FDA and authorized only on an emergency basis.

The FDA plans to fully approve Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine, one of the most widely used vaccinations, by early next month, people familiar with the effort have said. But as the delta variant spreads, some officials and businesses have decided to move more quickly.

Although coronavirus vaccines have become a political flashpoint in the civilian population, several military leaders said they did not expect much resistance from troops, who are accustomed to getting mandatory shots.

Within minutes of Austin’s memo, national figures from both parties voiced their support for a vaccine mandate for troops.

“Secretary Austin is protecting our troops with his announcement today that all service members must be vaccinated against COVID,” Leon Panetta, who was defense secretary during the Obama administration, said in a statement.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the top GOP member on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that “vaccines protect our men and women, many of whom live in cramped and crowded conditions, from the spread of disease.”

But some Republicans have signaled opposition to the move, especially without FDA approval. Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., warned in a letter to Austin last week that “mandatory vaccination is illegal for military personnel prior to complete approval.”

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