Biden on Making COVID Vaccine Mandatory for Troops: 'I'm Going to Leave It to the Military'

U.S. Navy sailor aboard the USS Iwo Jima receives COVID-19 vaccine.
U.S. Navy sailor aboard the USS Iwo Jima receives COVID-19 vaccine in the ship’s medical ward, April 24, 2021. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Travis Baley)

President Joe Biden said Friday he would leave it up to the Defense Department to decide whether the COVID-19 vaccine should be mandatory for U.S. troops once it receives full approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

In an interview with NBC's Today Show on Friday, Biden said it's a "tough call" on whether it should be required.

"I don't know," he said in response to a question from host Craig Melvin as to whether he would order service members to get the vaccine. "I'm going to leave it to the military."

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He didn't rule out such a requirement but added that more service members are getting the vaccine.

"You are in such close proximity of other military personnel, whether you are in a quarters where you are all sleeping or you are out on maneuvers," Biden said.

As of Wednesday, the DoD had administered more than 2.7 million vaccine doses to its beneficiaries, including service members, family members, eligible civilian employees and retirees. More than 779,000 troops across all three components -- active duty, reserves and National Guard -- have gotten at least one jab and nearly 500,000, or 23% of the total force, are fully vaccinated.

The Navy has the highest vaccination rates among the services: As of Wednesday, 224,225 sailors, or 55% of the service, had received at least one dose. Nearly 40% of all sailors have been fully vaccinated.

The Marine Corps is next in the race, with 81,274, or 37% of Marines, including reservists, receiving at least one dose. Nearly 27% of all Marines are fully vaccinated.

Almost 187,600 Air Force and Space Force members and Air Force Reserve and Air National Guardsmen have received at least one shot, or 36% of that population, with 25% fully vaccinated.

Vaccination rates are lowest in the largest of the armed services, the Army, but 28% of active-duty, Reserve and National Guard soldiers, or 286,557, have received a shot, and 14.5% are fully vaccinated.

Pentagon officials have said they will not require service members to get the vaccine as long as it is being administered under an emergency use authorization. When the vaccines were first rolled out by Pfizer and Moderna, the process for receiving full approval from the FDA was predicted to take up to two years.

With so many people having received their vaccinations -- 237,360,493 in the United States alone, as of Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- and the data generated by the distribution and administration of the immunizations, that process may be significantly shortened.

Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla said earlier this month that the company had enough data to "confirm the favorable efficacy and safety profile" of its vaccine to apply soon for full approval.

In mid-April, Moderna released results of its vaccine trials after six months, the next step in seeking FDA approval.

The DoD has had 286,952 cases of COVID-19 in its community since the beginning of the pandemic, including service members, dependents, employees and contractors. There have been 345 deaths, including 24 service members across all components and branches.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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