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Why The Pentagon Considers COVID-19 Vaccines Akin To Body Armor


The Defense Department is getting ready to require all service members to get COVID-19 vaccinations. To do that, the department will need either the FDA's full approval of the vaccines or a presidential waiver. Our colleague A Martinez spoke with Pentagon spokesman John Kirby about why the military wants America's fighting force to be fully vaccinated.

JOHN KIRBY: The vaccines we see as akin to body armor. You wouldn't want to go into a firefight without making sure that your troops have as much protection as possible, and so we issue them body armor. And we're looking at the vaccines in the same sort of light. It is a personal force protection matter for the individual, but to the degree that individual now can contribute to a more whole unit that is ready, then that makes that unit and that makes that command and maybe even that whole region a much safer place for us to operate in.

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: Now, short of full approval by the FDA, the department will need a presidential waiver for a vaccine mandate. When do you expect that waiver to come through?

KIRBY: The secretary made it very clear in his message to the force that he will seek a presidential waiver to make mandatory these vaccines by mid-September or upon FDA licensure, whichever comes first.

MARTÍNEZ: So by the middle of the month, we're talking around September 15.

KIRBY: I wouldn't put a date certain on it.


KIRBY: I've seen 15 September out there. What he said is mid-September.

MARTÍNEZ: Would a mandate extend to the National Guard and reservists?

KIRBY: As we're planning it now, yes, a mandate would apply to both the reserves and to the National Guard.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. Now, if service members refuse the vaccine, what kind of consequences could they face?

KIRBY: Well, once a vaccine is made mandatory, the issuance of it becomes a lawful order. Now, I don't think it's helpful to hypothesize each and every case. It would be case-specific based on somebody refusing to take it on other than medical or religious grounds.

But I think it's important to remember a couple of things. One, our commanders are going to execute this vaccination program with skill, professionalism and compassion. And they have lots of tools at their disposal to help get a service member to make the right decision without resorting to the Uniform Code of Military Justice or discipline.

And the other thing that I'd say is that we're going to make sure that if a service member objects, again, for other than religious or medical purposes, that we're sitting that individual down and counseling them, informing them both from a command perspective, but also from a medical perspective about the implications of this decision. And quite frankly, we don't anticipate this being a widespread major issue.

MARTÍNEZ: But wouldn't it make sense that that service member, if that person refused the vaccine, that they wouldn't be able to perform their duties like a vaccinated service member would?

KIRBY: Well, in fact, between now and the time when the vaccines are mandatory, the president has issued direction that there needs to be additional constraints, restrictions on the unvaccinated federal employees, of which the troops are included. So between now and making them mandatory, we will put into place additional restrictions and constraints. And some of those restrictions and constraints could have a deleterious effect on the ability of an individual to perform the job that they were enlisted or commissioned to do in the military and could affect, you know, a unit's ability to deploy them, to put them into the field and the fleet. So we're already thinking through that process right now.

MARTÍNEZ: Is the Navy making a more concerted effort than maybe other service branches? I'm wondering because maybe the space is tighter on ships or on subs. And did the outbreak, maybe, on the Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier in March of 2020 maybe jolt the Navy into action? That maybe didn't happen for other branches of the military.

KIRBY: All the services are working hard to inform and educate their populations to take the vaccine. And I know that if you look at the percentages, not all of them are doing the same, but they're all working very hard at trying to inform and educate their people. You have to understand that the services are different. They're different in size. They're different in age and demographics. The Marine Corps is a very, very young population, typically younger than the rest of the services. And they all have different deployment and operational demands being put on them. So I can tell you that each service chief is working very hard to make sure that their men and women know the vaccines are available, know that they're safe, know that they're effective and are encouraging them to take it. And we certainly have every expectation that they'll continue to do that going forward.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, that's Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. Thank you very much for joining us.

KIRBY: You bet. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.