The Biden administration is preparing to require all members of the United States military to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as the US races to inoculate its population against a new wave of more infectious coronavirus variants and hospitalisations soar.
President Joe Biden last month ordered the US Defense Department to develop a plan to make vaccines mandatory for all troops and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was expected to announce the requirement as soon as Friday.
Biden has already directed that all federal workers be vaccinated or face frequent testing and travel restrictions. Until now, the Biden administration has relied on encouraging troops to get vaccinated rather than mandating the shots.
“Today, about 400 people will die because of the Delta variant in this county,” Biden said at the White House on Friday.
“It’s a tragedy because virtually all of these deaths were preventable if people had gotten vaccinated,” Biden said.
According to the Pentagon, more than 1 million service members are fully vaccinated, and more than 237,000 have gotten at least one shot. There are roughly two million active duty, Guard and Reserve troops.
Austin is expected to ask the president to use executive authority to waive a federal law that requires individuals in the military be given a choice if the vaccine is not fully licensed.
“The military travels to vulnerable populations all over the world to be able to best serve the US,” said former Air Force Staff Sergeant Tes Sabine, who works as a radiology technician in an emergency room in New York state.
“We have to have healthy people in the military to carry out missions, and if the COVID-19 vaccine achieves that, that’s a very positive thing,” Sabine said.
The Defense Department likely will face a degree of resistance to the vaccine among active-duty troops, according to former Army lawyer Greg Rinckey.
Rinckey told The Associated Press his law firm has fielded calls from hundreds of service members wanting to know whether they could take any legal action if ordered to get inoculated for the coronavirus.
“A lot of US troops have reached out to us saying, ‘I don’t want a vaccine that’s untested, I’m not sure it’s safe, and I don’t trust the government’s vaccine. What are my rights?’” Rinckey said.
The distrust among some service members is a reflection of the broader US public’s feelings about the COVID-19 vaccines, which were quickly authorised for emergency use, but which many Americans have refused.
Private US employers also have begun mandating vaccines for employees. United Airlines Inc on Friday became the first US airline to require vaccinations for all domestic employees, joining employers from Microsoft to Tyson Foods that have mandated vaccines.
The Biden administration is taking steps to require nearly all foreign visitors to the US to be vaccinated for the coronavirus, a White House official has said.
All travellers to the US, regardless of vaccination status, are currently required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of air travel to the country.
Daily new COVID-19 cases have climbed to a six-month high in the US, with more than 100,000 infections reported nationwide as the Delta variant ravages states with lower vaccination rates.
Seven US states with low vaccination rates – Florida, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi – account for half of the US’s new cases and hospitalizations in the last week, White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters on August 5.
The pace of vaccinations has increased in recent weeks because of the spread of the Delta variant.