Pentagon officials struggled to determine how to implement and enforce these changes across the large military population and which National Guard and Reserve troops would be affected.
Two separate missions are now being carried out by the Pentagon. The first involves President Joe Biden's Thursday announcement aimed at increasing COVID-19 vaccinations in federal employees. The Defense Department will need to develop plans to mandate the vaccine for military personnel and establish new requirements for federal employees who will either have to attest to COVID-19 vaccinations or face frequent testing and travel restrictions.
Austin stated Friday that the department would move quickly, but he couldn't predict how much time it will take. Austin said that he will consult with both medical professionals and military service leaders.
Biden must sign a waiver in order to make mandatory the vaccination. The Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved the vaccine. Federal law states that the president can waive the requirement for individuals to have the option of rejecting or accepting an emergency vaccine. This applies "only if the president decides in writing that such compliance is not in the national security interests."
The FDA will not approve the vaccine if it is required. This could lead to opposition from vaccine critics and draw the military into the political debates about what has become a very divisive issue in America.
However, military commanders have had to struggle to distinguish vaccinated from unvaccinated candidates during the initial portions of basic training across all services. This was to prevent infection. A mandate might make housing and training easier for some.
Dependent on where they live, military personnel may need to receive up to 17 vaccines. Some vaccines are only available in certain regions. According to military officials, the rate of vaccinations is increasing across the force. Some units have seen nearly 100% of their personnel receive shots.
The military services may also be asked to discharge troops refusing the vaccine if they are given a mandate.
Officials from the National Guard stated that initial guidance suggested that Guard troops who refuse to receive the vaccine after it becomes mandatory will be provided with counseling by medical personnel. They would still be required to get the vaccine if they refuse. Failure to comply with that order could lead to administrative or punitive actions.
Officials from the Guard said that they were still working on legal recommendations regarding which citizen soldiers would be affected. Officials stated that the majority of Guard members would have to receive the vaccine once it is mandatory.
Federal active duty Guard troops would receive the vaccine in their units, while others would get it at their annual drill weekend or training. According to Guard officials, the system would be similar to any other vaccine requirement.
Guard members on active duty in the state would not be required to comply with this requirement as they are already subject to state laws. The order will apply once they have resumed their monthly drill. Officials from the Guard spoke on condition of anonymity about the new vaccine process, as procedures are still being finalized.
The number of COVID-19-related deaths in the military is still low, which can be attributed to the health and age of the force. However, the incidences of the virus are on the rise.
There have been over 208,600 COVID-19 cases among U.S. military personnel as of this week. More than 1,800 of those have been admitted to the hospital, and 28 have died.
The number of hospitalizations and cases had increased steadily in the earlier part of the year. However, the number and death toll had stagnated at 26 for over 2 1/2 months. The numbers have risen in recent weeks. In the past week, there were more than 3,000 cases and 36 people hospitalized. In the same week, two Navy sailors were also killed.