Unvaccinated U.S. troops must immediately start getting COVID-19 vaccines, says a memo issued Tuesday by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, which recently received full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, will be added to the list of required shots for U.S. troops. They'll be able to get their shots at their bases and from their commands worldwide, the Associated Press reported.
Service members can also get any of the other approved COVID-19 vaccines on their own.
Austin told military leaders to "impose ambitious timelines for implementation," but did not give a specific timeline for completing the vaccinations, the AP reported.
"To defend this Nation, we need a healthy and ready force," Austin said in the memo. "After careful consultation with medical experts and military leadership, and with the support of the President, I have determined that mandatory vaccination against coronavirus disease ... is necessary to protect the Force and defend the American people."
Of the more than 1.3 million troops on active duty and close to 800,000 in the Guard and Reserve, more than 1 million are fully vaccinated and nearly 245,000 more have gotten at least one shot as of Aug. 18, according to the Pentagon. But over 800,000 service members have yet to get their shots, and meeting the mandate may be tricky for National Guard forces who are scattered around the country and gather just once a month for their required drills, the AP reported.
It's crucial for troops to get vaccinated against COVID-19 because they live and work closely together and outbreaks could hamper the military's ability to defend the United States, according to defense officials.
COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are on the rise in the U.S. military. Over the past month, the number of deaths have increased by more than one-third, from 25 to 34, the AP reported.
"Our vaccination of the Force will save lives," Austin's memo said. "Thank you for your focus on this critical mission."
The new policy will allow for some exemptions currently permitted for other vaccines, including serious medical reactions to the vaccine, immune deficiencies such as HIV infection, and proof of existing immunity, the AP reported.
Members of the military must already get as many as 17 different vaccines, depending on where they are deployed. The requirements -- which include shots for smallpox, hepatitis, polio and the flu -- also allow a number of temporary and permanent exemptions for either medical or administrative reasons, the AP reported.
Visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more on COVID vaccines.
SOURCE: Associated Press