Pentagon: Troops Won’t Be Required to Take Coronavirus Vaccine

Military officials said the voluntary nature of the immunizations could change as time goes on and the FDA fully licenses a vaccine.

MEMBERS OF THE MILITARY won’t be required to take a coronavirus vaccine when it comes available through a new trial plan the Pentagon announced Wednesday, but that could change if the Food and Drug Administration moves beyond the emergency approval that currently allows for the initial distribution of the vaccine.

“Voluntary for everyone,” Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Place, chief of the Defense Health Agency, told reporters at a press conference at the Pentagon. “No ifs, ands or buts about it. Voluntary for everyone.”

Public skepticism in a vaccine to treat the coronavirus has persisted throughout the spread of the pandemic, though a two-thirds majority of Americans now say they would take the vaccine, up from only half in September, according to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center released last week.

“The safety profile is very good. The risk of these vaccines from what we know is much less than the risk from the actual disease process,” Place said.

Defense Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman, speaking alongside Place and Thomas McCaffery, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said the voluntary nature of the immunizations could change as time goes on. Once the FDA fully licenses a vaccine, “at that point voluntariness may change to mandatory,” Hoffman said. “That’s a possibility in the future.”

The officials on Wednesday announced the military will receive 44,000 initial doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine and will begin distributing them to high-priority recipients currently or previously within the Defense Department as a test for a more widespread vaccination program in the future.

Military planners will distribute the first round of vaccines to select service members and their families, retirees and certain civilians and contractors within the department through more than a dozen hubs around the country and globe, including Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington, D.C., as well as bases in Florida, Texas, California, Hawaii, Germany and elsewhere.

The Pentagon plans to publicize at least five senior leaders’ receiving a dose, including acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller “to message the safety and efficacy” of it, Hoffman said, “and encourage all eligible personnel to take the vaccine.” Others will include Army Gen. Mark Milley and Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the top and second-most senior officers among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist and the senior enlisted adviser to the secretary.

The move follows similar commitments from former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, along with several governors and public officials.

The Pfizer vaccine requires two doses to complete. Once the department has distributed the first round of the 44,000 doses, it will contact the supplier for the second round, McCaffery said.

First responders and health professionals will comprise the majority of the military personnel who will receive the vaccine in this first round, with lesser consideration for staff that provide critical national security jobs, such as those who manage and operate the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, the officials said.

Defense planners chose the first round of military installations to receive the vaccine based on their available infrastructure to properly handle the doses – including super-low temperature cold storage facilities – and high numbers of the personnel slated to receive initial vaccines.

They include National Guard bases in New York and Indiana, multiple facilities in the naval hub of Portsmouth, Virginia, Fort Bragg in North Carolina home to a series of special operations headquarters, the Marine Corps hub at Camp Pendleton in California and military bases in Japan and Korea.

Pentagon officials expect to expand beyond this trial stage in the new future.