Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is expected to make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for all active-duty troops in the coming days, a far-reaching decision that reflects the government’s ongoing concern over the spread of the delta variant, multiple outlets reported Wednesday.
The decision could come by Friday, and will require a presidential waiver to allow the vaccine to be administered to troops before it has full approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Vaccines are currently being used under the agency’s emergency use authorization mandate, although at least one vaccine — the Pfizer/BioNTech shot — is expected to get full approval by early next month.
CNN reported that Austin’s “inclination” is to make the vaccines mandatory.
The move follows President Joe Biden’s decision last week to mandate vaccination for all federal employees and on-site contractors or require those who do not get the shot to be tested weekly. Biden’s directive extends to about 766,000 civilians working for the Pentagon, but not active-duty service members, The New York Times noted. The president had directed Austin to look into how the Defense Department could mandate the vaccine.
The president, echoing public health experts, said at the time that vaccines remained the best method to prevent severe cases of COVID-19, as well as death associated with the disease.
“There’s nothing political about it,” Biden said.
The Defense Department had previously said it would likely wait for full FDA approval of the vaccines before making them mandatory, but a renewed surge in coronavirus cases has expedited that timeline.
COVID-19 infections are rising in every state in the nation due to the highly transmissible delta variant, threatening the reopening of businesses and the return to schools and offices, and forcing some states to reinstitute pandemic guidelines like mask mandates. Many universities and local governments have begun to mandate vaccination for students and employees, and pediatrics groups have expressed alarm about plans for children to get back to in-person school in the fall.
“He’s not going to let grass grow under his feet,” John Kirby, the Pentagon’s spokesman, told reporters of Austin’s thinking on Tuesday. “We’ll have more to say in very short order here.”
The Times added that about 64% of active-duty troops are already fully vaccinated, more than the U.S. adult population as a whole but still below thresholds health experts say are needed to curb the spread of the virus.
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