U.S. Army Spc. Eyza Carrasco, left, with 2nd Cavalry Regiment, administers a COVID-19 vaccination at the 7th Army Training Command’s Rose Barracks, Vilseck, Germany, May 3, 2021.

U.S. Army Spc. Eyza Carrasco, left, with 2nd Cavalry Regiment, administers a COVID-19 vaccination at the 7th Army Training Command’s Rose Barracks, Vilseck, Germany, May 3, 2021. U.S. Army / Markus Rauchenberger

For US Troops, Getting COVID Vaccine Is Now a Matter of 'How and When'

President tells Pentagon to add COVID to list of required vaccinations. He also imposed requirements on federal employees and contractors who decline to get vaccinated.

The Pentagon must determine “how and when” the vaccine will be mandated for all service members, too, President Joe Biden announced Thursday. 

“Today I’m asking the Defense Department to look into how and when they will add COVID-19 to the list of vaccinations the Armed Forces must get,” Biden said during a televised address from the White House. 

Biden also encouraged federal employees and contractors to get vaccinated, and imposed new requirements on those who do not.

“Every federal government employee and onsite contractor will be asked to attest to their vaccination status,” the White House said in a statement accompanying the president’s remarks. “Anyone who does not attest to being fully vaccinated will be required to wear a mask on the job no matter their geographic location, physically distance from all other employees and visitors, comply with a weekly or twice weekly screening testing requirement, and be subject to restrictions on official travel.” 

For months, the Pentagon has encouraged the vaccines but resisted making them mandatory, saying they would not be required until the Pfizer, Moderna, and other vaccines received full authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. 

In questions with reporters, Biden said he “knows” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is open to requiring the vaccine before it receives full FDA approval.

A few hours after Biden's speech, deputy Pentagon press secretary Jamal Brown said in a statement that “all military and civilian DOD personnel will be asked to attest to their vaccination status. Personnel unable or unwilling to do that will be required to wear a mask, physically distance, comply with a regular testing requirement and be subject to official travel restrictions.”

Austin also will “begin consulting our medical professionals, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to determine how and when to make recommendations to the President with respect to adding the COVID-19 vaccines to the full list of requirements for military personnel,” Brown said.

The Pentagon also will require all personnel working in or visiting the building to wear a mask, effective immediately, according to a memo released Wednesday. Under the new guidance, the Pentagon's Director of Administration and Management Michael Donley directs that “service members, federal employees, onsite contractor employees, and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, must wear a mask in indoor settings on the Pentagon Reservation.”

But requiring a vaccine at all may face legal challenges, Washington, D.C., employment law firm Tully Rinckey said in a statement to reporters. 

“While federal law does not prohibit public agencies and private businesses from requiring Covid-19 vaccines, even if the vaccines have only been authorized for emergency use, the announcement from the President will be challenged and face intense opposition,” the firm said.

The vaccine requirement is likely to be challenged under the Americans with Disabilities Act, HIPAA, or under various religious or medical rights, the firm said.

Added Tully Rinckey partner Daniel Meyer: “Defense employees and contractors who do not want to take the vaccine need to act quickly to prepare for management action against them. Those with preexisting conditions need to get medical documentation immediately; those with religious concerns need to consult with counsel to begin the process of requesting an accommodation.”

As of July 28, the Defense Department said, 1.02 million service members have been fully vaccinated, or roughly one-half of all active duty, reserves, and National Guard forces. A total of 373 defense personnel—including 28 service members—have died from COVID-19 since the outbreak began.

On Wednesday, Navy officials announced that two sailors—a 48-year-old medical officer and a 47-year-old reservist—had died during the past week of complications from COVID. Neither were vaccinated, USNI News reported.