WASHINGTON – Congress' move to eliminate the Pentagon mandate that all U.S. service members get the COVID-19 vaccine delivers a victory for lawmakers and troops who oppose getting the shot, but it raises questions and potential risks, especially for forces deploying overseas.
A compromise provision requiring Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to rescind the requirement is in the annual defense bill heading for votes this week in Congress. It's expected to pass. And the Pentagon is prepared to dump the mandate if required to do so by law and shift to strongly encouraging troops to get vaccinated.
But the bill doesn't include any order to allow a return to service by the more than 8,000 troops who were discharged for refusing to obey a lawful order when they refused to get the shot. And there appears to be no guarantee that those who don't get the vaccine won't see some potential deployment restrictions, which could affect their military careers.
A look at the vaccine mandate and the changes ahead:
Austin made COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory last year, saying the shots were critical to maintaining military readiness and the health of the force. Military leaders have argued that troops for decades have been required to get as many as 17 vaccines, particularly those who are deploying overseas.
But COVID-19 — and the vaccine — was a politically charged issue. Many Americans, especially conservatives, objected to mandates on shots and masks as the coronavirus swept through the nation. Many opposed it as government overreach and a violation of their freedoms. Some voiced concerns about its rapid development and others cited objections based on certain COVID-19 vaccines’ remote connection to abortions.
The vaccines do not contain fetal cells. Laboratory-grown cell lines descended from fetuses that were aborted decades ago were used in some early-stage testing of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and to grow viruses used to manufacture the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The military, however, also offers the Novavax vaccine, which doesn’t use human fetal-derived cell lines or tissue in its development or manufacture.
Since vaccines became mandatory 98%-99% of all active duty troops have gotten the vaccine. Thousands of others sought medical, administrative or religious exemptions, and as many as 16,000 religious exemptions are pending. The military services have come under fire for rejecting the vast majority of religious exemption requests — only about 190 have been approved. Small numbers of temporary and permanent medical exemptions have also been granted.
A number of lawsuits against the mandate also have been filed by service members, forcing the military largely to stop discharging those who refuse the shot and have sought a religious exemption.
WHAT THE LEGISLATION WOULD AND WOULDN'T DO
The bill would require Austin to end the vaccine mandate “not later than 30 days” after the law is enacted.
The legislation, however, doesn’t end or address requirements for the other vaccines that troops must get. And it doesn't specifically prohibit the military from preventing a non-vaccinated service member from participating in a specific mission or deployment. It's unclear if Austin would allow vaccination status to be a consideration in those decisions, or leave it to the services and commanders to decide.
On Wednesday, Sabrina Singh, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said rescinding the mandate would affect military readiness, but she declined to comment further on the legislation.
The bill also makes no mention of allowing discharged troops to return to the military, although that is a possibility based on individual circumstances. Many may not want to return. A complicating factor is that troops were discharged not for refusing the vaccine, but for refusing to obey a lawful order. Obeying orders is a fundamental tenet of the military.
THE CASE FOR THE MANDATE
Military officials vividly recall the overwhelming crisis of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the Navy aircraft carrier that was knocked out of duty and sidelined in Guam for 10 weeks in early 2020 as the emerging virus swept through the ship.
More than 1,000 crew members eventually became infected, and one sailor died. The rapid spread of the virus led to swift changes in how the military dealt with the virus, leading to the eventual vaccine requirement. Military leaders worry that if troops refuse the vaccine in large numbers, similar outbreaks could occur. The risk is particularly high on ships or submarines where service members are jammed into close quarters for weeks or months at a time, or on critical combat missions, such as those involving special operations forces that deploy in small teams.
The military, with its high vaccination rate and largely young and healthy force, has not seen the widespread deaths that the nation and world experienced.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been more than 98.7 million reported cases in the U.S, and more than 1 million deaths. About 80% of the U.S. population has been vaccinated. Meanwhile, there have been about 450,000 cases among the more than 1.3 million active duty members; 96 have died and about 2,700 were hospitalized.
THE CASE AGAINST THE MANDATE
The key benefit touted by some lawmakers is that removing the mandate will help the military overcome recruiting challenges.
In a statement, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said the policy has “clearly undermined readiness and hurt retention.” And Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said the pandemic is over and it's time to remove the “unnecessary policy.”
“We have real recruitment and retention problems across all services. This was gas on the fire exacerbating our existing problem,” Rogers said.
Military leaders acknowledge that the vaccine requirement is one of several factors contributing to their recruiting struggles. It may dissuade some young people from enlisting, but officials don’t know how many, and Austin said he's seen no hard data that links the COVID-19 mandate to recruiting issues.
The Army missed its recruiting goal by about 25% for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. The other services hit their goals, but had to dig deep into their pools of delayed entry applicants, which will put them behind in this recruiting year.
The reasons for the shortfalls are complex and they stretch back long before the vaccine was created or mandated. First, just 23% of young people can meet the military’s fitness, educational and moral requirements — with many disqualified for reasons ranging from medical issues to criminal records and tattoos.
More recently, two years of the pandemic shut off recruiters’ access to schools and events where they find prospects, and online recruiting was only marginally successful. And the military is facing the same labor shortage that has restaurants, airlines and other businesses scraping for workers, and is competing with companies that pay more and provide more or similar benefits.