According to a fact sheet released by the White House earlier this week, President Biden has instructed the Pentagon to look into “how and when” it will mandate servicemembers get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The document from the president urged the Defense Department to look into ways to add the COVID-19 vaccines to the list of required inoculations for servicemembers. Biden also ordered that all federal workers who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 will be subject to masking, social distancing, and frequent mandatory testing.

“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 on Thursday during a televised White House address.

“Right now, too many people are dying or watching someone they love die and say if ‘I’d just [gotten] the vaccine,'” Biden added. “This is an American tragedy. People are dying who don’t have to die.”

Every federal government employee and onsite contractor will be asked to attest to their vaccination status,” the White House said following the president’s statement. “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.”

A Shift in Pentagon Policy on COVID Vaccines

The Pentagon wasted little time in moving to implement this strategy as only a few hours after the president’s address, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with medical professionals and the Joint Chiefs to “determine how and when to make recommendations to President Joe Biden,” the Pentagon said on Thursday evening. 

Navy personnel being tested for COVID-19.
Navy personnel being tested for COVID-19. (U.S. Navy)

This signifies a shift in policy as for the past several months the Pentagon has been encouraging servicemembers to get vaccinated but drew the line at making the vaccination mandatory, stating that vaccines would not be required until the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson vaccines receive full authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.

Jamal Brown, deputy Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement, “The Department of Defense is moving quickly to meet President Biden’s commitment to defeat COVID-19, and that includes being able to ensure every member of our civilian and military workforce is protected.”

“In accordance with the guidance the President issued today, 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.”

Seventy Percent of Active-duty Personnel Has Had at Least One Shot

For the purposes of this new COVID-19 prevention protocol, military servicemembers are considered federal workers, so regardless of whether they get vaccinated or not, they will have to undergo weekly testing. This may adversely affect deployments.

Because of the spreading of the coronavirus Delta variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this week has recommended that vaccinated people wear masks again in crowded indoor settings.

The Air Force is the most vaccinated service, with 81 percent of its force having received both doses of the shot. The Navy comes in second with nearly 80 percent vaccinated. The Army is at 71 percent, while the Marines have the worst numbers at 58 percent. About 70 percent of all active-duty personnel have had at least one shot. 

Brown added that the DoD will continue to make the vaccine available to all DoD employees and their families. 

Biden Urges Pentagon to Make COVID Vaccine Mandatory
The Pentagon is working on making the COVID-19 vaccine one of its mandatory vaccines. (U.S. Army)

“COVID-19 remains a significant and evolving threat to our nation’s security,” Brown said. “The rise of the Delta variant and the speed with which it transmits make these additional protective efforts all the more vital to protecting our force and the nation we defend.”

“Vaccines remain the best and most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID, including the Delta variant,” he added.

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An Impending Fight in Congress?

Pushback from the more conservative Republicans in Congress is expected.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) has proposed a bill to prohibit the Pentagon from mandating the COVID-19 vaccine to troops. He said, earlier this month, that he had been “contacted by members of our voluntary military who say they will quit if the COVID vaccine is mandated.”

But Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), a moderate Republican and member of the Air National Guard, voiced his support for President Biden’s move writing in response that “1) [S]orry, but you can’t quit the military. 2) [T]here are about 3,890 mandatory vaccines in the military already, 3) [Y]ou knew this when you joined. 4) THE VACCINE WORKS.”