President Joe Biden on Thursday said he has ordered the military to start taking steps toward making the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for uniformed service members.
In comments at the White House, Biden stopped short of imposing a vaccine mandate right away. But he said he has asked the Defense Department to look into how, and when, the military will add vaccines to protect against COVID-19 to the list of other vaccinations service members must receive.
Biden said making the vaccines mandatory is important because troops often serve in places where vaccination rates are low and COVID is prevalent.
"Men and women in uniform, who protect this country against grave threats, should be protected as much as possible from getting COVID-19," he said.
COVID vaccines are now available on an emergency use basis. Until the Food and Drug Administration issues full approval for the vaccines, the military has said it will not make them mandatory for service members.
When asked whether Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is open to mandating troop vaccinations before the vaccine is fully approved by the FDA, Biden said, "I know he's open to it.
"The question is, when is the right time to get the most bang for the buck," Biden continued. "A lot of this is timing. I think it's going to happen, but ... it's still a temporary approval."
Biden said he would not pressure health agencies to come to any conclusions on approving the vaccine, but said he thinks they will reach their conclusions in early fall.
Vaccination rates are slowing in the military, as they are in other spots around the country. In mid-July, Austin said that 70% of active-duty troops had received at least one shot of a vaccine, and 62% were fully vaccinated.
The Pentagon's COVID website said that more than 1 million service members are fully vaccinated, and another 233,000 are partially vaccinated. That equates to at least 60% of the total military force of roughly 2.1 million -- including active, Guard and reserve troops -- who are at least partially vaccinated, though not all Guard and reserve troops who have been vaccinated may be recorded in those numbers.
Biden's directive, along with other initiatives he unveiled that are intended to encourage and make it easier for civilians to get vaccinated, come as vaccination rates are slowing and concerns are spreading about a more transmissible coronavirus mutation called the Delta variant.
After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this week recommended that even fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors in areas of the country where the virus is rapidly spreading, the military followed suit.
The highly trafficked Pentagon also reimposed its own mask mandates, even though its location in Arlington, Virginia, is seeing only moderate COVID spread overall.
In his remarks at the White House, Biden decried the way COVID vaccines have become politicized by some, and praised Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Republican Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey for encouraging citizens of their states to get the shots.
"This is not about red states and blue states, it's literally about life and death," Biden said. "I know people talk about freedom. I learned growing up ... with freedom comes responsibility. The decision to be unvaccinated impacts someone else. Unvaccinated people spread the virus. ... So please, exercise responsible judgment. Get vaccinated.
"It's an American blessing that we have vaccines for each and every American," he continued. "It's such a shame to squander that blessing."
Correction: This story has been updated to correct a reference to the military’s policy on vaccines before FDA approval.