In a stark change from military official and Pentagon stances given over the past few months, all military members will be required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine currently being distributed under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) granted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated that the deadline will be Sept. 15, 2021 but that date may be moved forward if the FDA officially licenses the vaccine prior to the deadline.1
Associated Press reports that FDA approval for the Pfizer vaccine may be granted in early September. Refusal of the vaccine by military members could constitute failure to obey an order and may result in disciplinary action under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.2
Air Force Times reported that, as recently as July, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby was “adamant” that the vaccines would remain voluntary, at least until the products were no longer under Emergency Use Authorization. If no approval is reached by Sept. 15, Secretary Austin will need a waiver from President Joe Biden, who is supportive of mandating the still experimental biological product for military members.3 4
U.S. Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA) of the House Armed Services Committee said:
Some may try and criticize the Secretary’s decision, using anti-vax arguments that are not supported by facts or science to politicize the conversation. These desperate attention seekers must be ignored.1
Federal Judge Ruled Against Unapproved Vaccines for Military Members in 2003
Both criticism and skepticism surrounding the vaccines is prevalent worldwide, but additional distrust amongst service members may stem from familiarity with the anthrax vaccine, which was originally licensed by the FDA in 1970 for protection from anthrax acquired through the skin but had never been licensed for use against weaponized inhalation anthrax when it was administered to selected US military personnel during the Gulf War in the 1990s. After Sept. 11, 2001, the anthrax vaccine was mandated for all active military personnel in response to controversial reports that other countries hostile to the U.S. had developed “biological weapons of mass destruction” that included weaponized anthrax.5
Following disabling anthrax vaccine adverse reactions among U.S. pilots, soldiers and other service members, some began refusing the vaccine altogether and either left the service or were “other-than-honorably” discharged. In 2003 in response to a lawsuit brought by anthrax vaccine injured pilots, a federal judge in Washington, DC issued an injunction requiring the Department of Defense (DOD) to allow members of the U.S. military to exercise voluntary, informed consent to use of anthrax vaccine, ruling that the DOD could not legally administer a vaccine unless it was fully licensed.6 This action halted the DOD’s anthrax vaccine program until the FDA licensed the vaccine in 2005 for use against any type of anthrax, including inhalation anthrax.3
Upon ruling, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan stated:
The women and men of our armed forces put their lives on the line every day to preserve and safeguard the freedoms that all Americans cherish and enjoy. Absent an informed consent or presidential waiver, the United States cannot demand that members of the armed forces also serve as guinea pigs for experimental drugs.4
According to Associated Press, these legal battles may be one reason why the DOD and current administration has been cautious about mandating an unapproved COVID vaccine for military personnel.3
In June, U.S. Congressman Thomas Massie of Kentucky introduced a bill that would prohibit mandatory requirement of the vaccine for any Armed Forces. The bill currently has 30 cosponsors.7
Active Duty Troops At 70 Percent Vaccination Rate
Defense Health Agency director Army Lt. Gen Ronald Place estimated that the Armed Forces would achieve a 100 percent COVID-19 vaccination rate by mid-July 2021, but a more modest goal of 80 percent vaccination rate was set by Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen Scott Dingle a few weeks later.8
Secretary Austin stated that 70 percent of active duty troops have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine as of July 9.8 The national vaccination rate for eligible U.S. citizens was 56.9 percent by July 18.9
As of June 30, the Navy had the highest vaccination rate (77 percent), followed by the Army at 70 percent vaccination rate, the Air Force at 61 percent and the Marine Corps at 58 percent.10
Recent Marine Corp-issued guidance states that Marines who were not vaccinated as of July 9 would be required to continue wearing masks in both indoor and outdoor settings. The guidance states that “commanders have the authority to verify vaccination status” and “unmasked Service members must be prepared to show proof of vaccination status.”11 12
Military Officials Working to Overcome Vaccine Hesitancy
Military officials continue to promote the COVID-19 vaccine and take action to counteract what they term as “misinformation” that is coming mainly from social media. Marine Lt. Col. Thomas B. Turner said:
We have to inoculate the force from the virus, and we have to inoculate the force for vaccine misinformation.13
Veteran Affairs Department Becomes First Federal Agency to Mandate Vaccines for Frontline Workers
On July 26, the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) announced that all VA medical facility employees will be required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, setting the precedent as the first federal agency to issue a mandate. Employees have eight weeks to show proof of vaccination status. Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough stated:
Whenever a Veteran or VA employee sets foot in a VA facility, they deserve to know that we have done everything in our power to protect them from COVID-19. With this mandate, we can once again make—and keep—that fundamental promise.14
Medical and Administrative Vaccine Exemptions for Military Members
Newsweek reports that “although vaccinations are controversial in some communities, it is legal for the military to require its service members to get them.”9 According to Health.mil—the official website of the Military Health System, both medical exemptions and administrative exemptions exist for military members. The website reads:
A medical exemption is a function that can only be validated by a healthcare professional. An administrative exemption is a non-medical function that is usually controlled by the individual’s unit commander.15
Religious exemptions may fall under the administrative exemption category.
Temporary medical exemptions up to 365 days may also be granted for conditions such as pregnancy, treatments causing immune suppression, or acute illness.15
The Pentagon released guidelines for religious exemptions to the COVID vaccine following the initial announcement. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said that service members who seek a religious exemption will be counseled by a medical professional and commander about the risks of not receiving the vaccine, as well as discussion about future eligibility for deployment and assignments.
We take freedom of religion and worship seriously, in the military, it’s one of the things that we sign up to defend, and so it’s something that’s done very carefully.16
Unvaccinated Federal Employees to Be Tested Regularly
President Biden recently announced that non-military federal employees and contractors will be required to get the vaccine or submit to weekly testing as well as other safety measures including mask wearing and quarantine.17
An attestation form15, which was released on Friday through Saferfederalworkforce.gov, will require federal employees and contractors to confirm their vaccination status adding “legal teeth” to the mandate. The form, which is publicly available online, states that false confirmation of vaccine status is punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both. The form also states that providing information is voluntary, however failure to provide information will result in being “treated as not fully vaccinated.”18
In December 2020, President Biden said that he didn’t think the COVID vaccine should be mandatory but he would do everything in his power as president to encourage citizens to do the right thing. “My hope is they will then be inclined to say it’s worth the patriotic duty to go ahead and protect other people,” Biden said. 19
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Click here to view References:
1 Baldor L. COVID vaccines to be required for military under new US plan. AP News Aug. 9, 2021.
2 Losey S, Kime P, Beynon S. Pentagon eyes possible mandatory COVID-19 vaccine as FDA weighs approval. Military.com July 6, 2021.
3 Watson J. Potential military vaccine mandate brings distrust, support. AP News Aug. 6, 2021.
4 Roos R. Judge orders DoD to stop requiring anthrax shots. Center for Infection Disease Research and Policy Dec. 23, 2003.
5 National Vaccine Information Center. Anthrax and Anthrax Vaccine.
7 Congress.gov. H.R. 3860- To prohibit any requirement that a member of the Armed Forced receive a vaccination against COVID-19. June 14, 2021.
8 Losey S. Military’s COVID vaccination rate lags behind Pentagon’s hopes. Military.com July 16, 2021.
9 Deliso M. Statistics show the stark risks of not getting vaccinated against COVID-19. ABC News July 19, 2021.
10 Myers M. The Navy is the service most vaccinated against COVID-19. The Marine Corps is the least. Military Times June 30, 2021.
11 Pedroja C. US Army could require COVID vaccinations of all soldiers by September. Newsweek July 1, 2021.
12 Toropin K. Marine Corps Lets Fully Vaccinated Marines Stop Wearing Masks. Military Times July 9, 2021.
13 Harkins G. 48,000 Marines have turned down the COVID-19 vaccine, corps say. Military.com Apr. 13, 2021.
14 Egan L. Veterans Affairs becomes first federal agency to require so staff be vaccinated against COVID. NBC News July 26, 2021.
15 Immunization Exemption Guidance. Health.mil. Accessed on July 28, 2021.
16 McFall C. Pentagon releases religious exemption guidelines for bypassing mandatory vaccine. Fox News Aug. 10, 2021.
17 The Associated Press. Federal workers who lie about COVID vaccination could face prosecution. Aug. 6, 2021.
18 Certification of Vaccination. SaferFederalWorkForce.gov. Accessed Aug. 8, 2021.
18 Joe Biden: Covid vaccination will not be mandatory. BBC Dec. 5, 2020.