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Pentagon considering mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for all troops

U.S. Army Maj. Bielosa Aworh receives COVID-19 vaccine at Fort Bliss, Texas, Feb. 5, 2021. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Maxwell Bass)
July 23, 2021

The Pentagon may make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for troops after the Food and Drug Administration officially approves the inoculations, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters earlier this month.

As part of a broader discussion on the Defense Department’s continued response to the coronavirus, Kirby said senior leaders within the department have had “some preliminary discussions” regarding the plan to mandate the vaccine once it receives FDA approval.

“The vaccines are under emergency use authorization right now and so they are voluntary. And with the acceptance rates across the force that we’re seeing, we’re glad to see that with a voluntary vaccine we’re doing that well,” Kirby said on July 8. “If these vaccines are approved by the FDA, then the secretary will certainly talk to the services and health care professionals here at the department to determine what the best options are going forward, which could include making them mandatory.”

“It is not uncommon, in fact, it is quite common, that FDA-approved vaccines are mandatory in the service,” he added. “Having been in the Navy myself for nearly 30 years, I can tell you I’ve been stuck quite a bit and it wasn’t like I was asking for every one of those.  It is — it’s common here.”

The United States military already mandates a number of vaccines for American troops, including shots against the flu, smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, and tetanus-diphtheria, according to the U.S. Army basic website.

While the Defense Department has said it will not mandate vaccines without FDA approval, Army Times reported earlier this month that the Army sent an order to commands that they are to prepare for issuing mandatory COVID vaccines around September.

“We’re all just kind of waiting to see what happens with the FDA,” a DoD official speaking on a condition of anonymity told Military.com. “We’re preparing for when and if the FDA makes the decision.”

Three different COVID-19 vaccines are currently in use in the U.S. after having been rapidly developed through Operation Warpspeed, an effort led by former President Donald Trump’s administration. Those three vaccines are the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

On May 7, Pfizer asked the FDA to consider approving their shot and Moderna later requested the same on June 1. Despite lacking FDA approval, Kirby said nearly 70 percent of Defense Department personnel have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

“That’s not bad,” Kirby said. “So we’ve got work to do. Clearly, we’d like to see that percentage continue to climb, but it’s at a healthy 68.8% as of today. … [The vaccines are] safe, they’re effective, and it’s really the best incentive to protect you, your families and your teammates.”

A potential mandatory vaccine in the military has faced backlash from troops and lawmakers alike. In June, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), along with 23 GOP cosponsors, introduced legislation to prevent such a requirement.

“I’ve been contacted by members of our voluntary military who say they will quit if the COVID vaccine is mandated. I introduced HR 3860 to prohibit any mandatory requirement that a member of the Armed Forces receive a vaccination against COVID-19. It now has 24 sponsors,” Massie tweeted.

In April, President Joe Biden said he hadn’t ruled out mandating all U.S. service members take COVID-19 vaccines, but described the decision as a “tough call.”

“I don’t know, I’m going to leave that to the military,” Biden initially responded when asked about mandating the vaccine for troops, before adding, “I’m not saying I won’t. I think you’re going to see more and more of them getting it. I think it is a tough call as to whether or not they should be required to have to get it in the military.”