Pentagon prepares Covid-19 vaccination plan for military personnel

Approved vaccines for at least 17 diseases are mandatory for members of the US military

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin says the government will move quickly to introduce a Covid-19 vaccination plan across the military.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin says he “won’t let grass grow under our feet” as the Defence Department begins to introduce new vaccination and testing directives that will affect two million US military personnel.

The Pentagon now has two initiatives involving US President Joe Biden’s announcement on Thursday that aimed to increase the inoculation rate among federal workers.

Pentagon officials have been working out how to enforce the changes across the military and determine which National Guard and Reserve troops will be affected by the orders.

The Defence Department must develop plans to make vaccination mandatory for the military, and set up requirements for federal workers who will have to either prove they have been vaccinated or face travel restrictions and frequent testing.

Mr Austin said on Friday that the department would move quickly, but that he could not predict how long it would take.

He said he plans to consult medical professionals as well as the military service leaders.

Any plan to make vaccination mandatory will require a waiver signed by Mr Biden, because the Food and Drug Administration has not yet given a Covid-19 shot final, formal approval.

According to federal law, the requirement to offer people a choice of accepting or rejecting use of an emergency use vaccine may be waived by the president only if they determine "in writing that complying with such requirement is not in the interests of national security".

Mandating vaccination before a shot receives FDA approval will likely increase opposition from vaccine sceptics, and drag the military into political debates over what has become a highly divisive issue in the US.

But military commanders have struggled to separate inoculated recruits from unvaccinated personnel during early portions of basic training across the services to prevent infections.

So for some, a mandate could make training and housing less complicated.

Military service members are already required to receive as many as 17 vaccines, depending on where they are based around the world. Some of the vaccines are specific to certain regions.

Military officials have said the pace of vaccination has been increasing across the force, with some units reporting that nearly 100 per cent of their members have received their shots.

More than one million service members are fully vaccinated, and another 233,000 have received at least one shot, the Pentagon said.

There are about two million active duty Guard and Reserve troops, it said.

A vaccination mandate will also raise questions about whether the military services will discharge troops who refuse to be inoculated.

While the number of Covid-19 deaths across the military has remained small, largely because of the age and health of the force, cases have been increasing.

There have so far been more than 208,600 cases among members of the US military. Of those, more than 1,800 have been admitted to hospital and 28 have died.

This year, the number of cases and hospital admissions grew by relatively small, consistent amounts, and the number of deaths stalled at 26 for more than two and a half months.

But in recent weeks the tallies have increased sharply. The number of cases increased by more than 3,000 in the past week alone, and those admitted to hospital grew by 36. Two Navy sailors also died in the past week.

Updated: July 31, 2021, 8:38 AM