Biden says mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for military ‘a tough call’

President Biden has not dismissed requiring all U.S. service members to get a COVID-19 vaccine once the shot is fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but says the decision is a “tough call.”

“I don’t know. I’m going to leave that to the military,” Biden told NBC News’s Craig Melvin in an interview broadcast Friday.

“I’m not saying I won’t. I think you’re going to see more and more of them getting it. And I think it’s going to be a tough call as to whether or not they should be required to have to get it in the military, because you’re in such close proximity with other military personnel.”ADVERTISEMENT

Roughly 780,000 service members, or close to one-third of the total force, are partially or fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to the latest Department of Defense numbers.

All Pentagon personnel and their beneficiaries are now eligible to receive a vaccine, in line with the rest of the U.S. population, but thousands have chosen to forgo the shot. Because the vaccines were approved under the FDA’s emergency-use authorization, military officials can’t mandate the inoculation.

Adding to the headache, the Pentagon does not track how many military members reject the vaccine, making it difficult to pinpoint why troops, sailors and airmen are holding off.ADVERTISEMENT

When asked about the issue later on Friday, national security advisor Jake Sullivan said a vaccine mandate is “something the Department of Defense is looking at in consultation with the interagency process and [I] don’t have anything to add on that subject today.”

He would not say whether Biden had any political concerns about ordering such a mandate.

Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Terry Adirim said earlier this month that officials have heard anecdotally and through surveys that younger people may feel that they’re not as vulnerable to COVID-19 and that the risk of vaccine side effects is higher than contracting the virus — “which, of course, we know not to be true.”

Others are waiting to allow shots to go to individuals who may be more at risk to the illness, Adirim added.ADVERTISEMENT

But some lawmakers want Biden to go ahead and make the vaccine a service member requirement, with a group of seven Democratic lawmakers in March urging him to do just that.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, has not ruled out a mandatory vaccination order.

“Obviously we’re thinking about what happens when they become FDA-approved, that certainly would … change the character of the decision-making process about whether they could be mandatory or voluntary, but I don’t want to get ahead of that process right now,” Defense Department press secretary John Kirby told reporters in early March.

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