Stand by to stand by. The Defense Department has signaled its intention to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for all service members, whether the Federal Drug Administration has fully approved them or not. But no actions have been taken or deadlines yet set.
In his memo to the force delivered Monday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he will, by mid-September, ask President Joe Biden ― who must grant a waiver in lieu of FDA approval ― for permission to add COVID-19 to the list of mandated inoculations. But there are few details available beyond that.
Austin is giving the service secretaries some time to come up with a roll-out plan, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, that could include not only strategy for vaccinating troops who are traveling or otherwise out of pocket, but parameters for exemptions and repercussions for those who continue to refuse to get vaccinated.
“Some of them were already working on the potential ― because all of us had a sense that this was coming,” Kirby told Military Times. “But he did not give them an actual deadline. He does not expect that it’s going to take very long for them to come back with implementation plans.”
And in the wake of Biden’s late July announcement that unvaccinated federal employees would be subject to regular COVID-19 testing, DoD is also working on interim guidance for service members in the final weeks of voluntary vaccinations, as well as long-term policy for civilians and contractors.
The services already have infrastructure to track vaccinations among troops and enforce mandates, including the power to involuntary discharge troops who refuse a vaccine.
While Austin has given himself mid-September as a deadline, it’s possible that the Pfizer vaccine will be approved by the end of August, and in that case, DoD will put it on the mandatory list immediately, according to Kirby.
“We think that FDA licensure will probably occur, at least in one case, sooner than that,” he said.
President Joe Biden preemptively voiced his support in a Monday statement, but didn’t issue any orders.
“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,” he said.
A policy directive, release date to be determined, will include a deadline for vaccination and instructions for how to ask for a waiver.
Certain groups, including those with past vaccine adverse reactions or conditions that prohibit vaccinations, will be eligible for an exemption. So, too, will troops who have religious opposition to vaccination, though service leadership will have to decided how they’re going to verify those cases.
“The secretary wants to give the services ample time to prepare for that,” Kirby said. “As well as the force ... that’s a big shift.”
Think of this memo as a “warning order,” Kirby added.
To date, roughly 70 percent of the active-duty force has had at least one dose of a vaccine, while 56 of the total force ― including the Reserve and National Guard components ― is at least partially vaccinated.
“We will make sure that the inventory will not be a limiting factor here when these vaccines are made mandatory,” Kirby said.
DoD has been staunch in its position that the vaccines would be voluntary as long as they remained under an FDA emergency use authorization, but surging cases have added new urgency.
“We’re seeing an uptick in cases, uptick in hospitalizations in the force, as we are across the country,” Kirby said, much of that due to the more contagious delta variant.
CDC data shows that fewer than one-tenth of 1 percent of new COVID-19 cases are in vaccinated individuals. Hospitalizations and deaths among vaccinated individuals are even more rare.
The services have reported roughly 10,000 new cases in recent weeks ― including two sailor deaths, the first deaths of service members since May.
Within weeks of loosening health protection levels, the Pentagon and other military installations have reinstated mask and physical distancing requirements, regardless of vaccination status.
There have been no signs, however, that travel bans or large-scale remote work plans are also coming back. Rather, the department is leaning in to vaccination as the best means to protect readiness.
“This isn’t just about you. It’s about your ship. It’s about your platoon. It’s about your squadron,” Kirby said. “It’s your opportunity to contribute to the health and readiness of your teammates, and thereby, the nation.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.