The defense secretary plans to order mandatory inoculations once the F.D.A. has fully approved the vaccine. If that has not occurred by Sept. 15, the defense secretary may seek to issue the order anyway.,
The U.S. military will mandate Covid-19 vaccine for troops.
Soldiers receiving the Covid-19 vaccine at Fort Bragg in North Carolina in February.Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than next month, the Biden administration announced Monday.
Officials initially said the shots could be required by the end of August to help stop the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant. But they decided to wait another month, bowing to concerns expressed by White House officials about putting a mandate in place for troops before the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval for the vaccine.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said in a memo to the staff Monday that he would seek to speed up a vaccine mandate if the F.D.A. approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine before the middle of September, which the agency aims to do. In the meantime, he told the services to begin preparing the force for mandatory vaccines.
But the middle of September is more than five weeks away, and even then, the administration has not put a deadline in place for when troops must be vaccinated.
The decision to delay is the latest shift in the Biden administration’s response to the surging Delta variant. While President Biden has expressed frustration with the vaccination rate around the nation and urged the private sector and state and local governments to step up pressure on the unvaccinated, he has repeatedly passed on taking the one step he can as commander in chief to mandate vaccines that have not been fully approved by the F.D.A. for troops.
Of the 1,336,000 active-duty members of the military, about 64 percent are fully vaccinated, a rate that is unacceptably low to the Pentagon, because it is difficult to deploy troops who have not been vaccinated to countries with stringent local restrictions, and because a surge of the virus among troops can cripple readiness. The Navy and Army have done somewhat better, while the Air Force and Marines have had a particular struggle, and remain well under 60 percent of fully vaccinated members.
“I want you to know that I will seek the president’s approval to make the vaccines mandatory no later than mid-September, or immediately upon the U.S. Food and Drug Agency (F.D.A.) licensure, whichever comes first,” Mr. Austin said in his letter to the Defense Department. He said that the department would keep a close eye on the rate of new virus cases, adding that “I will not hesitate to act sooner or recommend a different course to the president if I feel the need to do so.”