Austin Mandates COVID-19 Vaccine, Directs Secretaries to Set ‘Ambitious Timelines’

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III officially mandated the COVID-19 vaccine for the military, sending a memo announcing the news Aug. 24, a day after the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech version of the shot.

However, Austin’s memo does not establish a deadline by which service members will have to be fully vaccinated, instead leaving it to the Secretaries of the military departments to set “ambitious timelines for implementation.”

Air Force Magazine has reached out to the Department of the Air Force seeking clarification on its timeline. In a statement released on social media, newly installed Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said the department is “in lockstep” with Austin’s order.

“This is about protecting our Airmen, Guardians, and the people they love from this deadly disease, and keeping ourselves and our teammates ready to defend the Nation,” Kendall added.

Austin’s formal announcement was widely expected after the FDA’s approval came down Aug. 23. Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby said at the time that DOD was “prepared to issue updated guidance, requiring all service members to be vaccinated.” 

Austin had already said Aug. 9 that he would either make the vaccine mandatory when it received FDA approval or seek a waiver from President Joe Biden on Sept. 15 if it was still under Emergency Use Authorization, whichever came first.

The Pfizer-BioNTech shot is currently the only vaccine to receive full FDA approval, while other vaccines made by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are currently under Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). In his Aug. 24 memo, Austin wrote that only fully approved vaccines will be mandatory. Service members who have already received other vaccines with EUA approval will be considered fully vaccinated, as will those who receive those vaccines moving forward.

Austin’s pronouncement will affect “all members of the Armed Forces under DOD authority on Active duty or in the Ready Reserve, including the National Guard,” who are unvaccinated, a figure that likely stands at hundreds of thousands of troops.

The most recent Defense Department data from Aug. 18 show that more than 1.07 million active service members are already fully vaccinated, with nearly 250,000 more at least partially vaccinated. Those figures include all Active duty, Reserve, and National Guard components, putting the total percentage of the force that has been at least partially vaccinated in the range of 62 percent.

The percentage of Active duty troops who are vaccinated is higher. Kirby said Aug. 25 that 68 percent of Active duty troops are fully vaccinated, with 76 percent at least partially vaccinated.

Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass took to Facebook after the Aug. 25 announcement to once more urge Airmen to get vaccinated.

“At the end of the day, the COVID-19 vaccination mandate comes down to readiness,” Bass wrote. “We are an all-volunteer force that has to be ready to fly, fight, and win … AirPower anytime, anywhere.”

Bass also pointed out that the military already mandates vaccinations for a host of other diseases—at minimum nine and up to 17 based on the service member’s role and location.