As the COVID-19 delta variant rapidly spreads across the country, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III announced he will ask President Joe Biden for a waiver to require all military service members to be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, but he will wait at least a month, the Pentagon confirmed Aug. 9.
The Defense Department released Austin’s memo to the force just before Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby said the reason for the delay is so that services could work on a rollout plan. Services have been offering the vaccine on a voluntary basis since December.
“He met with the service Secretaries this morning—they all understand the timing here,” Kirby said. “He wants those implementation plans to be ready.”
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told Air Force Magazine during his first interview as the department’s leader that Airmen and Guardians need to get vaccinated to protect their families and teammates. The COVID-19 delta variant is spreading rapidly, with the Air Force returning to “exponential growth.”
“Every morning I get a report about other air bases that have raised their levels of concern about COVID and taking greater steps,” he said. “If we want to get out of this and really get this behind us, people have to get vaccinated. And so, the one thing I would say is to urge our Airmen, our Guardians, their families, and the people that they know, associate with, their loved ones, to get vaccinated.”
Kirby said more than 60 percent of the force has been fully vaccinated and some 73 percent of service members have received at least one dose. However, the vaccines are still voluntary as a condition of their emergency use approval by the FDA.
To date, DOD has administered more than 4.6 million vaccine doses. Among active-duty members of the military, 212,815 have been stricken by the coronavirus and more than 1,800 remain hospitalized.
Despite congressional urging, the Pentagon had long declined to ask for a presidential waiver to require the coronavirus vaccine prior to full Food and Drug Administration approval.
Then, Biden asked Austin to consider requiring the vaccine.
The memo released Aug. 9 comes after Austin consulted with the Joint Chiefs, service Secretaries, and medical professionals and details his support for requesting a waiver.
The White House has already put out a statement saying Biden supports making the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for members of the military.
“I strongly support Secretary Austin’s message to the Force today on the Department of Defense’s plan to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required vaccinations for our service members not later than mid-September,” Biden is quoted as saying. “Being vaccinated will enable our service members to stay healthy, to better protect their families, and to ensure that our force is ready to operate anywhere in the world.”
Nonetheless, the Pentagon said Austin will wait.
“He intends to ask for a waiver by mid-September unless or until FDA licensure occurs first,” Kirby said.
“It’s a process issue,” he added. “Until FDA licensure has occurred, you still need a formal waiver provided by the President of the United States.”
The Pentagon declined to say how the new vaccination plans will affect deploying service members or how members of the military might be punished if they refuse the vaccine once a presidential waiver is granted and the vaccine becomes required.
Kirby said vaccine refusal in the military, long a concern that led Austin to record a video in February on vaccine safety, was not a problem.
“We don’t have any evidence to suggest this is a widespread problem right now,” he said.
The Pentagon said Austin reserves the right to request the waiver sooner than the mid-September timeframe.
“We’re going watch the trends closely. We are seeing an uptick in cases, an uptick in hospitalizations across the force as we are in the country, and the delta variant is a factor,” Kirby said. “If [Secretary Austin] needs to move sooner than this timeline, then he’ll do that.”