COVID-19: Vaccination for service members to be mandatory

    The Army and other branches of the military are preparing to administer mandatory COVID-19 vaccines as early as Sept. 1. This order is pending full Food and Drug Administration approval of the COIVD-19 vaccines, now under emergency use approval. The Army Times is reporting that the directive came from an executive order sent by the Department of the Army Headquarters.

    Army Times obtained a portion of a recent update to HQDA EXORD 225-21, COVID-19 Steady-State Operations. Apparently, the Pentagon assumes that full approval from the FDA will come by September.

    “Commanders will continue COVID-19 vaccination operations and prepare for a directive to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for service members [on or around] 01 September 2021, pending full FDA licensure,” the order said. “Commands will be prepared to provide a backbrief on servicemember vaccination status and way ahead for completion once the vaccine is mandated.”

    EXORDS are utilized when the president directs the defense secretary to execute a military operation.

    The document was leaked and so far the Army isn’t commenting specifically on it. Vaccinations for COVID-19 remain voluntary for now. “If we are directed by DoD to change our posture, we are prepared to do so.” The Pentagon has not put out guidance on preparing for a mandatory vaccine roll-out in September.

    The FDA isn’t commenting on whether or not the vaccines will be fully licensed by September.

    The ”timelines for vaccine approval may vary depending on a number of factors, but as Pfizer and Moderna announced, they have initiated rolling submissions of their biologics license applications for their COVID-19 vaccines,” said Alison Hunt, an FDA spokesperson. “As a general matter, FDA cannot comment on particular applications.”

    Once the companies finish collecting biologics license application data on their vaccines, the FDA will take 60 days to review the applications for full approval, in accordance with the agency’s guidelines for priority review.

    I wouldn’t bet against a September timeline, though. We’ve seen how quickly the COVID-19 vaccine process has moved since the beginning of the pandemic, thanks to Operation Warp Speed in the U.S. September probably isn’t an unreasonable expectation to have. Just like in the general population, interest in receiving COVID vaccinations has dwindled among members of the military. According to Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Place, director of the Defense Health Agency, the Army is currently at a 70% vaccination rate. The Navy has the highest level of vaccination rates. It, too, expects to have a mandatory vaccination program.

    Speaking at a Facebook townhall event, Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. John Nowell noted that the vaccine remains voluntary for now because of its emergency-use status.

    But when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approves the vaccines, the Navy will likely make it mandatory, like the flu jab, Nowell said this week, echoing what other admirals have said in recent months.

    “When it’s formally approved, which we expect pretty soon, we’ll probably go to that,” he told a sailor who asked about COVID vaccinations and differing sailor opinions on getting the jabs.

    “That question will be moot,” Nowell added.

    He was quick, however, to reassure sailors that their V.A. benefits or other healthcare needs will not be affected during the voluntary phase, whether they get the vaccination or not.

    Defense Department data shows that 72% of sailors are fully vaccinated and 82% have received at least one shot.

    “I know that the vaccine is something that’s very personal for everybody,” Nowell said.

    “I do believe the vaccine is safe,” he added. “Everyone in my family has taken it, from my youngest child who’s a nurse to my 86-year-old father.”

    As new variants emerge, getting more people vaccinated reduces the risk that the virus could mutate in an unforeseen way, Nowell said.

    “We think you’re safer, your family’s safer … your shipmates are safer and therefore we can make sure we get the job done,” he said. “I would ask folks to thoughtfully reconsider if they have declined the vaccine, but I do understand it’s their decision.”

    Veterans Affairs administration is still weighing if the vaccines will be mandatory for its employees. VA Secretary Denis McDonough said no decision has been made but he hopes that incentives will help encourage employees to get vaccinated. The VA is offering more leave for staffers to receive and recover from the vaccine. He said that without increasing the number of vaccinated employees, the VA hospitals and offices cannot fully resume operations.

    “My goal has been by August to make clear we are providing more care and more benefits than before the pandemic began,” he said. “Our ability to do that is enhanced by our ability to get more staff vaccinated.”

    “We are making sure we understand the full range of options we have, not only the current legal environment … and our existing legal authorities. It would be negligent to not be considering the full range of opportunities we have to ensure we’re taking every step possible to protect veterans.”

    About 70% of VA employees are vaccinated. Figures fluctuate from location to location. The New Orleans VA Medical Center which had the highest number of patients cases and deaths from the coronavirus last year has an 85% rate of staff vaccinations. The St. Cloud VA Health Care System in Minnesota is below 60%. The time off incentive includes giving employees 4 hours of uncharged leave to get vaccines and then up to two days of uncharged sick leave to recover from any adverse reactions to it.

    The Air Force currently has a 61% vaccination rate, while the Marines have the lowest at 40%, though that is improving.

    What are your thoughts on the story? Let us know in the comments below!

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