New policy hopes to be in line with full FDA approval expected in September. When the largest employer in the world makes any significant decision, everyone sits up and takes notice.
That’s what happened when Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III sent out a memo to all US Department of Defense (DoD) employees saying he was seeking President Biden’s approval to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory. His decision affects not only the 3.2 million employees on the payroll, but their families, communities, and states. Florida, for instance, where approximately 40% of the population remains unvaccinated has about 55,000 active duty service members and 36,000 reservists.
Vaccination rates in the military have lagged behind other populations, especially among Black and Hispanic service members. An April study published in Medical Surveillance Monthly Report found that “non-Hispanic Blacks, as well as those who were female, younger, of lower rank, with lower education levels, and those serving in the Army were less likely to initiate COVID-19 vaccination after adjusting for other factors.”
The decision had been in the offing for some time but when cases of the Delta variant of the virus began to spike in July, President Biden asked Sec. Austin to consider how and when the COVID vaccine could be added to the list of required vaccines for service members. It’s a long list already: Depending on their location, service members can get as many as 17 vaccines. It also folllows on the heals of the decision by the US Department of Veterans Affairs to require vaccinations for frontline health care workers.
Austin promised to “not let grass grow.” He consulted with Army Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, service chiefs, service secretaries, and medical professionals. Based on those discussions, he decided to ask for approval to make the vaccines mandatory no later than mid-September or immediately upon FDA licensure, whichever comes first.
However, he added, “[t]o defend this Nation, we need a healthy and ready force. 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.” Currently, 73% of active-duty personnel have had at least one dose of the vaccine.
Leaping upon the news—and based on the wording in the memo—some in the media were reporting that it meant all troops have to be vaccinated by mid-September. “He’ll make the request by mid-September, unless or until FDA licensure occurs before that time, at which point the Secretary has the authority he needs…to make whatever vaccine is then given that license mandatory.” That’s not the case, said Pentagon press secretary John Kirby in a briefing. Some voices also have called on the DoD to do more to dispel vaccine hesitancy among the troops.
In the meantime, Kirby said, “[T]wo things are going to happen. One, the services are going to be tasked to come back to the Secretary with implementation plans for how they’re going to get this moving.” Noting that mid-September isn’t far away, he pointed out that the services have a “fair but limited amount of time” to arrange their implementation plans. “I have every confidence that service leadership and your commanders will implement this new vaccination program with professionalism, skill, and compassion,” Austin wrote in his memo.