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The Pentagon Has Moved Toward Making Vaccines Mandatory For Service Members

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, here in July, has announced a move to require COVID-19 vaccines for all service members.
Olivier Douliery
AFP via Getty Images
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, here in July, has announced a move to require COVID-19 vaccines for all service members.

Updated August 9, 2021 at 4:39 PM ET

The Department of Defense is moving to make COVID-19 vaccinations required for all department employees.

"To defend this Nation, we need a healthy and ready force," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a memo to employees Monday. "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 Pentagon cannot take the step unilaterally because the Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved the vaccine. The move would require a presidential waiver, which Austin plans to ask for by mid-September.

After that, individual services would draft plans for implementing a mandate within each military branch, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Monday.

Alternatively, if the FDA gives full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine before then, Austin has the authority to implement a mandate himself.

The White House released a statement in tandem with the Pentagon memo, saying President Biden strongly supports mandating the vaccine. "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," Biden said.

The spread of the delta variant was a factor in the plan, Kirby said. Nationwide, case numbers have jumped.

So if Austin "needs to move at sooner than this timeline, then he'll do that," Kirby said.

Already, about 73% of active-duty service members have received at least one dose, with 62% fully vaccinated, he said.

Kirby didn't comment on what the repercussions would be for any department employees who refuse vaccinations once the mandate is in place.

"We continue to want to appeal to a sense of teamwork among the unvaccinated service members," he said, telling personnel that "it's your opportunity to contribute to the health and readiness of your teammates."

The military already requires some 17 vaccines for service members, according to Kirby. The required vaccines differ according to where service members are deployed.

The news from the Pentagon follows Biden's announcement last month that federal employees and contractors will need to confirm they are vaccinated or be tested once or twice a week for the virus.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for NPR.org and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.