Beginning next month, the United States is prepared to require all US military members to get vaccinated against COVID-19, the White House and Pentagon said on Monday.
“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,” President Joe Biden said in a statement released by the White House.
“We cannot let up in the fight against COVID-19, especially with the Delta variant spreading rapidly through unvaccinated populations,” President Biden said.
After setting COVID-19 rules for federal workers, Biden last month directed the Pentagon to look into “how and when” it would require about 750,000 members of the military who have not yet been vaccinated to take the vaccine.
The Defense Department is targeting mid-September for a vaccination deadline based on expectations the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will give full approval to the Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE vaccine. The vaccines at present are authorised by the FDA under an emergency use designation.
The deadline could be moved up if the FDA approves the vaccine earlier, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a memo, according to the Reuters news agency. Austin said that he could act even sooner or recommend a different course if the situation worsened.
“We want a healthy and ready force,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on Monday.
“As to when the vaccines will become mandatory, we are still working through details and policies,” Kirby told reporters at the White House.
Two US officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the vaccine could have been immediately mandated but that more than a month had been given with the hope of full FDA approval, which should reduce fears about the safety of the shot.
Top US infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci has said that he hopes regulators could start granting full approval for the vaccines as soon as this month.
Approximately half the US armed forces are already fully vaccinated, a number that climbs to 62 percent when counting only active-duty troops and excluding National Guard and reserve members, Kirby said.
Vaccination rates are highest in the Navy, which suffered from a high-profile outbreak last year on board an aircraft carrier. About 73 percent of sailors are fully vaccinated.
That compares with a US national average of about 60 percent of adults age 18 and older who have been fully vaccinated.
Because US troops are generally younger and fitter than the general US population, relatively very few service members have died as a result of COVID-19, according to Pentagon data.
Many congressional Republicans have refused to say publicly whether they have been vaccinated, and some have attacked the jabs as unnecessary or dangerous.