The Defense Department is requiring all uniformed and civilian personnel to attest to whether they have received the vaccine against COVID-19, as part of the government’s effort to kick-start vaccinations.
Those who have not been vaccinated, or who are unwilling to say, will have to wear a mask and physically distance themselves from others, Pentagon spokesman Jamal Brown said in a news release issued Thursday evening. They also must be tested on a regular basis and have their travel restricted.
The Pentagon issued this announcement hours after President Joe Biden announced a series of initiatives aimed at boosting COVID-19 vaccination rates. Among other programs, Biden said he had ordered the military to look at how, and when, to make the vaccine mandatory for service members.
“The Department of Defense is moving quickly to meet President Biden’s commitment to defeat COVID-19, and that includes being able to ensure every member of our civilian and military workforce is protected,” Brown said in the release.
Those who lie about their vaccination status could face punishment. In a July 9 message to its force, the Marine Corps said service members and civilian employees who misrepresent their status could face administrative action or punitive actions.
The government’s increased focus on encouraging vaccinations comes at a time when vaccination rates are stalling, and concerns are growing about a highly transmissible mutation of the coronavirus called the Delta variant.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on its online data tracker that the seven-day moving average for new COVID cases has hit 40,246 — a nearly 47% increase over the previous week’s average.
Earlier this week, following the CDC’s guidance, the Pentagon began requiring all personnel and visitors — even those who are fully vaccinated — to wear masks while indoors at military facilities located in areas with substantial or high COVID transmission rates.
Brown said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will consult with medical personnel and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to decide how and when to make recommendations to the White House on making the COVID vaccine mandatory.
“COVID-19 remains a significant and evolving threat to our nation’s security,” Brown said. “The rise of the Delta variant and the speed with which it transmits make these additional protective efforts all the more vital to protecting our force and the nation we defend. Vaccines remain the best and most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID, including the Delta variant.”
But a vaccine requirement could prove controversial and draw challenges. The law firm Tully Rinckey on Thursday issued a release that said Biden’s plan to require civilian federal employees to be vaccinated or submit to regular testing and other requirements could be challenged on several fronts. Those include challenges under the Americans with Disabilities Act, on medical and religious accommodation grounds, and under collective bargaining agreements.