Coronavirus: Pentagon to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for military following FDA approval

WASHINGTON — The Department of Defense is preparing to issue a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for members of the U.S. Armed Forces, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby confirmed Monday after regulators granted full approval to the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.

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“Now that the Pfizer vaccine has been approved, the department is prepared to issue updated guidance requiring all service members to be vaccinated,” Kirby said at a news conference. “These efforts ensure the safety of our service members and promote the readiness of our force, not to mention the health and safety of the communities around the country in which we live.”

It was not immediately clear when the mandate would go into effect. Kirby said officials plan to provide a timeline “in the coming days.”

The announcement comes after the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for use in people aged 16 and older. More than 204.7 million doses of the vaccine have been administered nationwide since regulators issued emergency use authorization for the shots in December 2020, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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More than 1 million military service members and 301,600 civilian Defense Department employees have gotten fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, the last date for which data was available. An additional 245,000 service members and 46,000 civilian employees have been fully vaccinated, according to Defense Department numbers.

Officials are expected to add the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to the military’s required immunization list, which also includes mandatory vaccinations for other viruses including influenza and rubella, Stars and Stripes reported.

Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a memo to troops informing them that he planned to require the vaccine by no later than Sept. 15. President Joe Biden said he strongly supported the move, adding that vaccination “will enable our service members to stay healthy, to better protect their families and to ensure that our force is ready to operate anywhere in the world.”

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Kirby said Monday that officials have not yet made any decisions about requiring the COVID-19 vaccines developed by either Moderna or Johnson & Johnson, which still await FDA approval. About 143.4 million Moderna vaccine doses and 14.1 million Johnson & Johnson vaccine does have been administered across the country, according to the CDC.

More than 51% of Americans, or 170.8 million people, have been fully vaccinated so far, CDC numbers show. Nearly 61% of the population, or 201.4 million people, have gotten at least one vaccine dose.

Public health officials have urged more people to get vaccinated as the highly transmissible delta variant has driven up illnesses and hospitalizations nationwide. Research has shown that fully vaccinated people can spread the delta variant, which accounts for more than 80% of all COVID-19 cases reported nationwide; however, officials have noted that vaccination protects well against severe and life-threatening symptoms of the viral infection.

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Since the start of the pandemic, officials have confirmed 37.7 million infections and reported more than 628,700 deaths across the U.S., according to numbers compiled by Johns Hopkins University. About 212.1 million COVID-19 cases have been reported worldwide, resulting in 4.4 million deaths, according to Johns Hopkins.