Military troops must immediately begin to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a memo Wednesday, ordering service leaders to “impose ambitious timelines for implementation.”
More than 800,000 service members have yet to get their shots, according to Pentagon data. And now that the Pfizer vaccine has received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration, the Defense Department is adding it to the list of required shots troops must get as part of their military service.
The memo, which was obtained by The Associated Press, does not dictate a specific timeline for completing the vaccinations. But it says the military services will have to report regularly on their progress. A senior defense official said that Austin has made it clear to the services that he expects them to move quickly, and that this will be completed in weeks not months.
Troops will be able to get their Pfizer shots at their bases and from their commands around the world. The Pentagon has said it has enough vaccine supply to meet demand. Individual service members may also go out and get any of the other COVID vaccines on their own.
Fulfilling the vaccine mandate, however, may be a challenge for National Guard forces who are scattered around the country, and gather just once a month for their required drills.
According to the Pentagon, there are more than 1.3 million troops on active duty and close to 800,000 in the Guard and Reserve. And, as of Aug. 18, more than 1 million active duty, Guard and Reserve service members were fully vaccinated and nearly 245,000 more had received at least one shot.
Military officials have said they don't have specific numbers on how many Guard troops are not yet vaccinated, and the Pentagon only provides a troop total that lumps active duty, Guard and Reserve into one statistic.
Defense officials have said it's critical for troops to get the vaccine because they live and work closely together and outbreaks could hamper the U.S. military's ability to defend America.
Austin’s decision to mandate the vaccine fulfills a vow he made earlier this month to require it no later than mid-September, or immediately upon FDA licensure, whichever came first. His move reflects similar actions by governments and companies around the world, as nations struggle with the highly contagious delta variant that has sent U.S. cases surging to heights not seen since last fall.
Hospitalizations and deaths are increasing among the military. Over the past month, the number of service member deaths jumped from 25 to 34 – by more than a third.
Austin in the memo noted that the new requirement will allow for exemptions that are consistent with the current policies for all the other vaccines. Permanent exemptions include serious medical reactions to the vaccine, immune deficiencies such as HIV infection, and “evidence of existing immunity” by a serologic antibody test or “documentation of previous infection or natural infection presumed.”
There also are administrative exemptions, including one for religious reasons. The religious exemption is granted by the military services based on their policies, and it appears to be relatively rare. The decision is made by commanders based on consultation with medical personnel and chaplains.
The Navy and the Marine Corps said they have had zero religious exemption requests for other vaccines in recent years and the Air Force said there were few. The Army was not able to provide any data.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.