New vaccine requirements for federal employees expected to be announced by President Joe Biden Thursday “very well” could mean troops will be required to get the shot, a senior Pentagon official told ABC News on Wednesday. But if not, it still may only be a matter of time.
Because COVID-19 vaccines are available to the military under the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization (EUA), the shot has so far been strictly voluntary.
“It is not FDA approved, and therefore, it is still a voluntary vaccine,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters earlier this month. “I would like to add that as we speak, almost 69% of DOD personnel have received at least one dose. That’s not bad.”
By last week, the proportion of fully vaccinated troops had risen past 70%, based on data from the Department of Defense. That’s significantly higher than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s estimate of 49% for the U.S. population as a whole.
While the DOD can’t independently decide to force service members to take a vaccine that isn’t fully approved, the president “may under certain circumstances waive the option for members of the armed forces to accept or refuse administration of an EUA product,” according to the FDA.
Biden said Tuesday that a federal mandate is “under consideration” and sources familiar with the discussion told ABC News the president is likely to announce federal employees will be required to be vaccinated, or else abide by “stringent COVID-19 protocols like mandatory mask wearing — even in communities not with high or substantial spread — and regular testing.”