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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin Wants Entire U.S. Military Vaccinated By Mid-September

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today, the Pentagon took a new step towards a vaccine mandate. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is seeking approval to require that all members of the U.S. military get vaccinated against COVID-19 by mid-September. This comes as cases are on the rise nationally and with vaccination rates in the military roughly around the national average. For more on this, we're joined now by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So, OK, this is the military, right? So can you just explain why the U.S. secretary of defense cannot just order everyone to get vaccinated?

MYRE: Right. You'd think he could and throw in 50 push-ups for good measure.

CHANG: (Laughter).

MYRE: But he can't because the vaccine has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, which is the case with all the vaccines we have right now. They all have this emergency authorization. So, as a result, this has been a voluntary vaccine for military members. To make it mandatory, Biden will have to issue a waiver on national security grounds, and Austin said in his memo that's exactly what he's asking the president to do.

CHANG: OK. So what is President Biden saying?

MYRE: Well, just minutes after Austin's memo came out today, Biden put out his own statement, saying he strongly supported this move. Now, the president didn't formally issue a waiver, but it certainly seems clear that's where we're headed. Biden recently called for the military to come up with a vaccination plan. And we should note, the military takes vaccines very seriously. Members have to get at least a dozen or so vaccines, but those are all FDA approved.

CHANG: Right. But why has the military waited until now to do all this?

MYRE: You know, that's a really good question. The military has been strongly encouraging vaccines among personnel, but it hasn't really pressed to use this authority to make it mandatory. But, now, there are concerns about the rising cases and the highly contagious delta variant, and the military faces some unique risk - troops work together very closely; the virus can spread very quickly; space is tight on a ship or a sub or an airplane. It's, you know, virtually impossible to train or deploy without being shoulder to shoulder. And also, the military vaccination rates are roughly around the U.S. average for adults, and the military says this is just not good enough, given the demands it faces for readiness. The Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, didn't say what might happen if troops refused to get vaccinated, but he did urge them to get their shot immediately.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KIRBY: You can consider this memo today as what we would call in the military a warning order, a warning order to the force that this is coming, and we want you to be ready for it as well. And, obviously, we'd prefer that you get the vaccine now and not wait for the mandate.

CHANG: A warning order. OK. Well, overall, how do you think the military has done so far when it comes to combating COVID?

MYRE: Very well, actually. The military was very quick off the mark to set up protocols. It can tell military members what they can and can't do, generally speaking. They have this young, healthy workforce, so most of those contracting the illness have recovered. They've had fewer than 30 deaths among the 1.3 million active duty members of the force. So in this sense, the military has done much better than the U.S. population in general. But we should also see today's move in the broader context is reflecting the military's real concern over rising COVID cases, the delta variant and how quickly this could all spread.

CHANG: That is NPR's Greg Myre.

Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.