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Secretary of Defense Mandates COVID-19 Vaccinations for Service Members

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III yesterday issued a memorandum directing mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for service members, a Pentagon official said today. John F. Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, said only Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccines will be mandatory.

The secretary has determined — after careful consultation with medical experts and military leaders and with the support of the president — that mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for service members are necessary to protect the health and readiness of the force, Kirby said.

A man wearing a face mask and gloves holds a nasal swab while another man wearing a face mask tilts his head back.
COVID Screening
Medical staff from Navy Medical Readiness and Training Command Sigonella in Italy rehearse COVID-19 screening procedures in support of the Defense Department's mission to facilitate the safe departure and relocation of U.S. citizens, special immigration visa recipients, and vulnerable Afghan populations from Afghanistan at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy, Aug. 20, 2021.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Kegan Kay
VIRIN: 210820-N-OX321-1036A

On Aug. 23, the FDA gave full approval to the Comirnaty vaccine — previously known as the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine — for individuals 16 years of age and older. Before Aug. 23, the vaccine was available for use through an FDA emergency use authorization.

Kirby said vaccines other than Comirnaty will not be made mandatory, but that could change if the FDA issues full approval for others.

The memo directs the secretaries of the military departments to immediately begin full vaccination of all members of the department on active duty or in the Guard or Reserve, who aren't yet fully vaccinated against COVID-19. 

Service members who are actively participating in COVID-19 clinical trials are exempt from mandatory vaccination until the trial is complete to avoid invalidating clinical trial results, the memo states.

The secretaries are also directed to "impose ambitious timelines for implementation and to report regularly on vaccination completion using established systems for other mandatory vaccine reporting," the memo states.

"The secretary has communicated to the military departments to execute this mandatory vaccination program with, obviously, skill and professionalism, which we always do, but also with a measure of compassion," Kirby said.

A soldier wearing a face mask and gloves holds a syringe while giving another soldier  a vaccine­­­­.
Vaccine Ready
Army Spc. Dorien Lewis, a combat medic with Division Sustainment Troops Battalion MEDOPS, 3rd Division Sustainment Brigade, administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to an Army soldier at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, Aug. 17, 2021. Medics across Camp Arifjan held a COVID-19 vaccine drive for personnel that are not fully vaccinated.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Marquis Hopkins
VIRIN: 210817-A-PU202-316

Service members with preexisting conditions who are advised against being vaccinated by their doctors would be exempt from mandatory vaccinations, Kirby said, adding there may also be possible exemptions on religious grounds.

Service members outside those two categories who still object will be offered a chance to sit down with a physician and have that physician communicate to them the risks that they're taking by being unvaccinated, Kirby said. 

They'll also be offered a chance to sit down with those in their chains of command to talk about the risks that their objection will impose on the unit and on the force and on their teammates, he added. 

"Commanders have a wide range of tools available to them to help their teammates make the right decision for themselves, for their families, and for their units, and the secretary expects that the commanders will use those tools, short of having to use the UCMJ," he said, referring to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

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