‘We need a healthy and ready force’: Pentagon to mandate Covid vaccine for US military

15 September deadline could be pushed up if vaccine receives final US regulatory approval by FDA

Members of the US military will be required to have the Covid-19 vaccine beginning on 15 September, under a plan announced by the Department of Defense (DoD) on Monday and endorsed by Joe Biden.

That deadline could be pushed up if the vaccine receives final US regulatory approval, beyond its current emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), or if rising infection rates continue.

“To defend this nation, we need a healthy and ready force. I strongly encourage all DoD military and civilian personnel – as well as contractor personnel – to get vaccinated now and for military service members to not wait for the mandate,” the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, said.

He added: “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.”

Austin’s plan provides time for the FDA to give final approval to the Pfizer vaccine, which is expected early next month.

The president said: “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.”

Biden said the country is still on a wartime footing and “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”.

Austin’s memo to the military was issued on Monday as the Biden administration conducts a broader campaign to increase vaccinations in the federal workforce.

The coming mandate reflects similar decisions by governments and companies around the world.

“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 said.

He added: “I am proud that our military women and men will continue to help lead the charge in the fight against this pandemic, as they so often do, by setting the example of keeping their fellow Americans safe.”

Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, issued a memo in support saying the military’s “medical professionals recommended this as a necessary step”.

It continued: “Vaccines are the best tools to protect us from Covid-19. If you have taken the vaccine, thank you. If you have not yet … please do so to protect yourself and those around you.”

Austin said in his memo says that the military services will have the next few weeks to prepare, determine how many vaccines they need, and how this mandate will be implemented.

The additional time, however, also is a nod to the bitter political divisiveness over the vaccine.

The decision will add the Covid-19 vaccine to a list of other inoculations that service members are already required to get. Depending on their location around the world, service members can get as many as 17 different vaccines.

Austin’s memo also said that in the meantime, the Pentagon will comply with Biden’s order for additional restrictions on any federal personnel who have not been vaccinated. Those restrictions will include wearing masks, social distancing and travel limits.

According to the Pentagon, more than 1 million troops are fully vaccinated and another 237,000 have received one shot, with the number rising. But the military services vary widely in their vaccination rates.

The navy said that more than 74% of all active duty and reserve sailors have been vaccinated with at least one shot. The air force, meanwhile, said that more than 65% of its active duty and 60% reserve forces are at least partially vaccinated, and the number for the army – by far the largest service – appears to be closer to 50%.


Joan E Greve in Washington and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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