WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of next month, the Biden administration announced on 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, 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.
The secretary of defense, Lloyd J. Austin III, said in a memo to the staff on Monday that he would seek to speed up a 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 vaccinations.
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 fully vaccinated.
The decision to delay is the latest shift in the Biden administration’s response to the surging Delta variant. 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. But he has repeatedly passed on ordering troops as their commander in chief to be injected with vaccines that have not been fully approved by the F.D.A.
About 64 percent of the 1.3 million active-duty service members are fully vaccinated. That rate is unacceptably low to the military because it is difficult to deploy troops who have not been inoculated to countries with stringent local restrictions and because a surge of the virus among troops can cripple readiness.
“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” F.D.A. approval, Mr. Austin said in his memo, adding “whichever comes first.” He said that the department would keep a close eye on the rate of new virus cases and added that “I will not hesitate to act sooner or recommend a different course to the president if I feel the need to do so.”
But Mr. Austin already recommended a different course to his boss, and the president balked. Last week, the defense secretary advised Mr. Biden that a vaccine mandate was one of the few measures available to protect troops from the virus.
The Pentagon recommended going ahead with the mandate and not waiting for F.D.A. approval, according to three administration officials with knowledge of the internal deliberations. White House and Defense Department legal staff members said the president also had the authority to mandate vaccines for members of the National Guard and the Reserves.
During a meeting at the White House on Friday, defense officials presented a plan to immediately mandate vaccinations for all active-duty service members, the officials said. But White House officials urged caution, the officials said.
In a statement on Monday, Mr. Biden said his administration was “on a wartime footing, and every American who is eligible should take immediate steps to get vaccinated right away.”
The president said that “we cannot let up in the fight against Covid-19, especially with the Delta variant spreading rapidly through unvaccinated populations.”
Health and other officials have said that vaccinating troops could help slow the spread of the virus in communities near military bases and in areas where hesitancy has been strong.
“Military settings, including bases with many civilian employees, can be very vulnerable from an infectious disease perspective,” said Lindsey Leininger, a health policy researcher and a clinical professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. “Better late than never for the mandate.”
Mr. Biden’s caution came as a surprise to some administration officials because the president announced last month that all federal employees and on-site contractors must be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing and other measures. That requirement affected the 766,372 civilians working for the Defense Department, not active-duty service members.
The Department of Veterans Affairs recently required 115,000 of its frontline health care workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus in the next two months. The department is looking at ways to expand that mandate to other workers in the system and possibly those who visit department facilities.
Understand the State of Vaccine Mandates in the U.S.
Because American military members are governed by different health and justice authorities than other federal workers, the decision is ultimately made by the president, who must grant a waiver to the Defense Department to make vaccinations mandatory for a vaccine not yet approved by the F.D.A. and authorized only on an emergency basis.
The F.D.A. plans to fully approve Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine, one of the most widely used vaccinations, by early next month, people familiar with the effort have said. But as the Delta variant spreads, some officials and businesses have decided to move more quickly.
Though coronavirus vaccines have become a political flash point in the civilian population, several military leaders said they did not expect much resistance from troops, who are accustomed to getting mandatory shots.
Within minutes of Mr. Austin’s memo, national figures from both parties voiced their support for a vaccine mandate for troops.
“Secretary Austin is protecting our troops with his announcement today that all service members must be vaccinated against Covid,” Leon E. Panetta, who was defense secretary during the Obama administration, said in a statement.
Representative Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that “vaccines protect our men and women, many of whom live in cramped and crowded conditions, from the spread of disease.”
But some Republicans have signaled opposition to the move, especially without F.D.A. approval. Representative Mark E. Green, Republican of Tennessee, warned in a letter to Mr. Austin last week that “mandatory vaccination is illegal for military personnel prior to complete approval.”
Source From Nytimes