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The Defense Department Aims To Make Vaccines Mandatory For Service Members

NOEL KING, HOST:

In terms of case numbers and deaths, the U.S. military has done relatively well fighting COVID. But the delta variant is out there now, and the military wants to prevent a surge in its ranks. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says by mid-September, he plans to ask President Biden for permission to make service members get the vaccine. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre has been following this one. Good morning, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: We've had safe, effective vaccines since last winter. Some part of me is a little surprised this hasn't been ordered already.

MYRE: Well, you know, the military can give its troops a lot of orders. It can make the march. It can make them do push ups, but it can't force them to take a vaccine that isn't approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA hasn't approved any of the COVID vaccines so far. That could come soon. But right now, they only have emergency authorization. So to make it mandatory, President Biden would have to issue a waiver on national security grounds. And Defense Secretary Austin said in his memo yesterday that that's exactly what he's going to do, ask the president.

KING: If it's just a matter of signing a presidential waiver, why have President Biden and the Pentagon waited until now?

MYRE: Yeah, it seems several factors are at play here. The military has emphasized it wants the troops to buy in and see the value of this vaccine, do it voluntarily. There's also been some thinking that FDA approval was just around the corner and that would have took away the need to to get a presidential waiver. But it appears the rapid spread of the delta variant is driving this thinking in the military, that it can't afford to wait any longer and be surprised by a new surge. And we should note, the military vaccination rate tracks pretty closely with the civilian rate. In both cases, there's about full vaccination of a little over 60%. And that's just not good enough, according to the military. Here's how the Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, described Austin's memo yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KIRBY: What he's asking for in this message to the force today is don't wait. They're safe. They're effective. They work. They make us a more ready force, a more lethal force. And there's no reason to wait for the mandate.

MYRE: And if the mandate comes and a soldier or a troop doesn't want to take the vaccine, there presumably will be some sort of penalty. But Kirby didn't say what it would be. He just said the military has unique risk, and it's virtually impossible to train or deploy without being in close quarters.

KING: Yes, close quarters are a real thing. And yet you've reported that the military has done relatively well keeping COVID controlled. How did they pull that off?

MYRE: Well, you may recall right early on, back in March of 2020, there was a big scare on the Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier. It had more than a thousand cases.

KING: Yes.

MYRE: So this really gave the military a jolt. They quickly set up protocols. And despite this vaccination rate that still isn't where they want it to be, there's been fewer than 30 deaths among the 1.3 million active duty members in the force. They've really seem to have benefited from having a young healthy force. So most people contracting the illness have recovered.

KING: So President Biden says federal workers will have to get vaccinated; now almost certainly the military. Do you think we're looking at a bunch of new federal mandates?

MYRE: Well, it certainly seems like it's a possibility. And I think on the federal side, you have a pretty high likelihood of compliance. If a military mandate comes down, there could be some opposition. But troops don't really have a choice. And I think it'll be more interesting outside the military as well as we're seeing the pushback already in schools and other civilian institutions. But more mandates do seem to be in the works.

KING: OK. NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.