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Pentagon says ending vax mandate will hurt troops and readiness

Tech. Sgt. Joseph Anthony holds a COVID-19 vaccine vial at the Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station, Pennsylvania, Feb. 4, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Joshua J. Seybert)
December 12, 2022

Military leaders are raising concerns about negative impacts on force readiness if the COVID-19 vaccine mandate is repealed. The concerns come after lawmakers added language in the 2023 defense budget to do exactly that.

During a Wednesday Pentagon press briefing, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh said “We know the vaccine can inoculate you against getting COVID-19 — or at least protect you, if you do contract COVID-19, your symptoms won’t be nearly as bad. And so, [Defense Secretary Lloyd Asutin] fully supports maintaining the vaccine mandate, he believes that this is something that keeps our forces healthy, that keeps our forces safe.”

Singh went on to say that repealing the vaccine mandate “would impact the readiness of the force, you’re more prone to getting COVID-19.”

“Again, we’ve seen that the impacts of COVID we had millions of people die here in this country because of either not having access to the vaccine, or not taking the vaccine,” she continued. “And we certainly know that the vaccine will save your life.”

Since COVID-19 first appeared in the U.S. in 2020, about 1.09 million people have died either from or with the virus. That number includes 690 people within the Department of Defense. 96 military service members have died with COVID-19.

According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of CDC data, in April of 2020, people who are vaccinated against against COVID-19 became the majority of new COVID-19 deaths, overtaking deaths among the unvaccinated population. Between April and August of this year, the vaccinated population represented about 60 percent of new COVID-19 deaths.

Vaccinated adults represent about 79 percent of the U.S. population, which helps explain why they represent a larger share of new COVID-19 deaths. According to the CDC, there were about 1.32 COVID-19 related deaths per 100,000 unvaccinated people in September, compared to .26 per 100,000 for those with their first COVID-19 vaccine series and .07 per 100,000 for those with an up to date booster shot.

White House National Security Council (NSC) spokesman John Kirby, who previously served as the Pentagon press secretary, called the vaccine mandate rescission language a “mistake.”

Another senior defense official, who spoke anonymously, told the Washington Post that when service members inevitably “get sick, and if they should die, it will be on the Republicans” for pushing for the repeal of the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

In a Reagan Defense Forum panel discussion this weekend, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger said the COVID-19 vaccine mandate is “tied to readiness” of U.S. troops but said the mandate was impacting recruiting. During that same panel discussion, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) said he believed the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate was lawful, but “I’m not quite there on the readiness argument.”

The House of Representatives passed the 2023 defense budget bill on Friday but it still has to pass in the Senate and President Joe Biden still has to sign it. It remains to be seen if the Senate will also pass the 2023 defense budget bill with the vaccine language intact, and if Biden signs the budget into law.