Service members not yet vaccinated against COVID-19 will have to sit down for their shots soon or risk administrative or criminal action.
With the Food and Drug Administration’s announcement Monday that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine has received full licensure, the Defense Department is working up a policy to begin requiring it for troops.
“A timeline for vaccination completion will be provided in the coming days,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
In an August memo, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced he would seek a waiver from the president, by mid-September, to make the vaccines mandatory during an FDA emergency use authorization.
In that memo, Austin left open the possibility that one or more of the vaccine options would become fully licensed before his September deadline, and that he would either move up his request or add them one at a time to the mandatory vaccination list.
Kirby did not clarify which course of action Austin plans to take, only that the focus for now is on the Pfizer vaccine.
“I don’t want to get ahead of decisions that haven’t been made yet,” he added.
Once the guidance is out, troops will either need to visit a military medical facility to get their doses, or show proof of outside vaccination to their chains of command, who can enter it in existing medical tracking systems.
The guidance is also expected to lay out some recourse for commanders whose troops refuse to get vaccinated. That could range from non-deployable status, evaluation marks that could affect promotion, administrative or other non-judicial punishment, or even criminal charges.
As of Wednesday, 58 percent of the active-duty and reserve components had gotten at least one dose of vaccine. Officials in late June told reporters that about 70 percent of the active-duty force is vaccinated, with the Navy the most complete, at 73 percent, and the Marine Corps the least, at 58 percent.
The overall number on Wednesday had increased roughly 2 percent over the previous week, when Austin first announced he intended to make the vaccines mandatory. That jump doesn’t represent a significant spike, as vaccine rates have been growing 1 to 2 percent week over week for much of the summer.
DoD does have a process for requesting medical or religious exemptions. Approval requires legal and spiritual counseling, as well as discussion of all alternatives.
Additionally, DoD is creating guidance to get into compliance with the rest of the federal government, as President Joe Biden in August announced that unvaccinated federal employees with be subject to regular COVID-19 testing.
The Pentagon’s announcement follows the military’s deadliest stretch of the pandemic yet. In the past month, eight service members of died of COVID-19, twice as many as the November, previously the worst month.
Four of those deaths came between Aug. 13 and Aug. 15, bringing the military mortality rate to 0.01 percent ― well below the nearly 2-percent rate across the U.S., but also 25 times higher than in was for troops in 2020.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT