Tech. Sgt. Joseph Anthony, 911th Aeromedical Staging Squadron aeromedical technician, fills a syringe with the COVID-19 vaccine at the Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station, Pennsylvania, Jan. 28, 2021.

Tech. Sgt. Joseph Anthony, 911th Aeromedical Staging Squadron aeromedical technician, fills a syringe with the COVID-19 vaccine at the Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station, Pennsylvania, Jan. 28, 2021. U.S. Air Force / Joshua J. Seybert

Pentagon Orders Troops to Get COVID Vaccine

Austin’s order follows FDA approval of one vaccine—and the deadliest week yet for COVID-stricken troops.

Vaccination against the COVID-19 coronavirus is now mandatory for service members following the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of Pfizer’s vaccine, the Pentagon announced Wednesday. The announcement also follows a week in which five service members died of COVID, the worst weekly toll of the pandemic.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s Aug. 24 memo directs the service secretaries to immediately start vaccinations of service members. The memo tells the secretaries to “impose ambitious timelines for implementation” but does not give a specific deadline.

“Mandatory vaccinations are familiar to all of our service members, and mission-critical inoculation is almost as old as the U.S. military itself,” Austin wrote in the memo. “Our administration of safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines has produced admirable results to date, and I know the Department of Defense will come together to finish the job, with urgency, professionalism, and compassion.”

Troops have not heretofore been required to get vaccinated against COVID because the vaccines have been distributed since December under emergency use authorization from the FDA. That changed on Monday, when the Pfizer vaccine received full approval for people ages 16 years and older. Austin had said in an Aug. 9 memo that he would require troops to get vaccinated if that happened.

The new policy only allows service members to receive mandatory coronavirus vaccines that have received full licensure from the FDA, which for now is just the Pfizer vaccine. If service members have already voluntarily been vaccinated with a vaccine under the FDA emergency use authorization, such as the ones from Moderna or Johnson & Johnson, or a vaccine from the World Health Organization Emergency Use Listing, they are considered fully vaccinated.

Service members who are participating in a COVID-19 clinical trial are exempted from mandatory vaccination until the trial is complete. 

As with other mandatory vaccines, service members can request an exemption for religious or health reasons, such as a preexisting condition, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday. However, if they refuse to get the vaccine outside those reasons, Kirby said the service member will be asked to sit down with a doctor and their chain of command to understand the “risks that their objection will impose on the unit, and on the force, and on their teammates.”

“Commanders have a wide range of tools available to them to help their teammates make the right decision…And the secretary expects that the commanders will use those tools short of having to use the [Uniform Code of Military Justice],” Kirby said.

He said he would not give hypothetical answers when asked whether commanders could use non-judicial punishment in those circumstances.

“Once you mandate it as we’ve done, it’s a lawful order,” Kirby said. “And we fully anticipate that our troops are going to follow lawful orders.”

As of Aug. 18, the Defense Department has more than 1 million service members fully vaccinated out of a total force, including Active duty, Reserve and National Guard members, of more than 2.1 million, according to their online coronavirus data. Looking at the individual services, Kirby stated that the Navy has the most fully vaccinated personnel at 73 percent, followed by the Air Force and Space Force at 57 percent and the Marine Corps at 53 percent. The Army, with the most personnel, has the lowest vaccination rate at 40 percent.

Kirby also said that 68 percent of active duty service members are fully vaccinated, but he did not provide a breakdown for Reserve or National Guard members.

With the Delta variant of the virus wreaking havoc on the United States, the rush to vaccinate troops is even more pressing. Between Aug. 11 and Aug 18, five service members died from the virus, including a 27-year-old, making it the deadliest week for the military since the pandemic began, Military Times reported. Since the pandemic started, more than 222,000 service members have been infected with the coronavirus and 34 have died.