Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday issued a memorandum directing the military services to begin full vaccination of all service members following FDA approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine on Monday.
“Mandatory vaccination against COVID-19 will only use COVID-19 vaccines that receive full licensure from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in accordance with FDA-approved labeling and guidance,” said a Pentagon statement about the order.
The order does not apply to service members who were already fully vaccinated with vaccines under emergency use authorization, or those who are actively participating in COVID-19 clinical trials. It said service members with previous coronavirus infections “are not considered fully vaccinated.”
Austin ordered the services to “impose ambitious timelines for implementation” and to “report regularly on vaccination completion.”
“To defend this Nation, we need a healthy and ready force. After careful consultation with medical experts and military leadership, and with the support of the President, I have determined that mandatory vaccination against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is necessary to protect the Force and defend the American people,” Austin’s memo read.
“The Secretaries of the Military Departments should impose ambitious timelines for implementation. Military Departments will report regularly on vaccination completion using established systems for other mandatory vaccine reporting,” he said.
“Our vaccination of the Force will save lives. Thank you for your focus on this critical mission,” he added.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said service members who object can ask for exemptions on religious or medical grounds, but said “if it’s an objection outside those two frameworks, the individual 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 continuing to not want to take the vaccine.’
“They will also be offered a chance to sit down with their chain of command and their leadership to talk about the risks that their objection will impose on the unit and on the force and on their teammates,” he said.
“The 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 [Uniform Code of Military Justice],” he said.
He added, “It’s a lawful order, and it’s our expectation that troops will obey lawful orders. And we also expect that commanders will have plenty of other tools available to them to get their vaccination rates up, and to get these individuals to make the right decisions short of having to use disciplinary action.”